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Follow Winegarner’s Rules When Reporting on Pagan and Minority Religions

Journalist Beth Winegarner has written an excellent how-to piece for Poynter, an institution dedicated to improving journalism, on covering stories that may involve Santeria, Palo, Paganism, or other esoteric religions. While the whole piece is well worth the read, and contains relevant examples, I want to excerpt just the “rules” for the sake of simplicity.

  1. Don’t take what police or other sources say at face value.
  2. Find & interview real experts.
  3. Write carefully, with attention to relevant details.

Over the years, I have dinged journalists over, and over, and over, and over again when it comes to covering religious or spiritual practices they may not understand. Most of the issues could have been avoided had they simply followed those three steps. Far too many reporters go for the simple sound-bite, taking a police statement, or neighbor’s account, at face value, and not following that up with commentary from an expert on the subject.

Let’s take a recent example, the arrest of Daniel Hess and live-in girlfriend Lacey Day for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old family member. Hess apparently “indicated and justified, or tried to justify what he had done by his belief in Wicca which is a form of witchcraft, or the practice of witchcraft.” We hit strike one when reporters simply take those statements at face value, we hit strike two when NBC affiliate WTAP cites only one outside source, Dictionary.com, for information on Wicca. The Marietta Times also flunks on step two, citing the Wicca.org website as their only authoritative source on Wicca. Luckily, The Marietta Times redeems itself somewhat by finding an actual living-breathing Wiccan minister to comment on the indictment hearing.

“Hess and Day are each facing two third-degree felony counts of sexual battery. During the investigation into the alleged incidents, Hess claimed the acts were a part of his belief in the religion of Wicca. Harry Dorman, an ordained Wiccan priest with Circle Sanctuary, a national Wiccan organization based in Wisconsin, said neither Hess nor Day is a part of the organization. He also said the religion does not promote sexual assault of children during rituals.”

The Marietta Times actually following up and getting an expert source on-record is quite a advancement, and no doubt at least partially due to the proactive media stance of Circle Sanctuary. Which brings me to my final point, and the unofficial fourth rule (or perhaps a corollary for Pagans) not mentioned in Winegarner’s excellent piece.

4. Pagan and other minority religion groups need to take a proactive stance with media outlets, and create their own media as well, if they want to be treated fairly.

This is something I’ve been harping on for a long time, but it really does work. Take the Turner family of Bowden, Georgia, whose son, Christopher (11), was facing religiously-motivated harassment by his school. In that instance, grass-roots reporting led to Pagan media interfacing with local and national Pagan groups, and was ultimately noticed by a mainstream newspaper. That paper then took the lead from the work Pagan organizations and media had already done, ensuring a story that was positive, balanced, and sympathetic to our perspective. That’s not going to happen every time, but the more involved we are in the process, the better our chances of Winegarner’s rules getting followed when someone covers a potentially sensationalist story. In the meantime, whenever you read a story about Pagans, adherents of Santeria, Vodouisants, or any other minority religious, see if they follow the rules.

For those who’d like to read more from Beth Winegarner, she has an excellent blog entitled “Backward Messages” that analyzes stories about youth culture, debunking the pernicious myths about Goths, emo kids, video games, and other perennial targets for media pundit ire.





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