Editor-in-chief, Manny Moreno contributed to this editorial.
The news media currently stands at a pivotal intersection in history. More responsibility is riding on any given news outlet’s ability to cover the events that are happening accurately than ever before. It is not just a matter of which stories are given coverage, but most importantly how they are covered. This is especially true for news that impacts marginalized communities and minority populations.
It is equally true that every journalist brings their own perspective and, frankly, baggage to any report. One can rightly argue that all stories are incomplete. But there is also an awareness within media that is exclusively focused on minority communities that the stories told by those with less experience and familiarity overlook or overstate an issue.
That reporting can lead to misrepresentation and even erasure.
Last August a news story reported on the disappearance of Leila Cavett, who had traveled from Georgia to Florida to meet with a man, Shannon Ryan. Ryan was identified in the story as a “self-proclaimed witch-doctor.” As the case and reporting progressed, Ryan was identified in later articles as just a “self-proclaimed witch.”
The details of the case and the potential crime while certainly relevant, are not the issue here. Describing him as “self-proclaimed” is.
When the term “self-proclaimed” is applied to a dominant faith like Christianity, the approach is to confirm the apologist. A self-proclaimed Christian, as reported in a CBS video, for example, intends to discredit the described individual, in this case, a “prophet,” as having deviated from the inherently good and normative intentions of Christianity. The use of “self-proclaimed” is an attempt to discount their credibility as a follower of the faith and occasionally their sanity.
Unless the subject of the news is a Witch or Pagan. We rarely see this privileged representation with Witch, Witchcraft, Heathen, or any Pagan faith. If the report involves a Witch, mainstream outlets and the temptations of sensationalism – and therefore click income – seem to overwhelm reporters and editors alike.
Rosaleen Norton, famed Witch of Kings Cross in Australia is an example. Even years after her death, she is identified this way. A stock photo listed for purchase lists a woman whose picture was taken at WitchsFest NYC in 2017 describes the shot as: “A belly dancer and self-proclaimed witch balancing a scimitar on her head at Witchfest 2017 in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City.”
Tom Brady’s wife, Gisele Bündchen, made the news in 2019 when Brady revealed in an interview some of the pre-game spiritual practices she initiated for him. While he is quoted as characterizing her as a “good Witch,” the headline seized on his use of the word “crazy” when he referred to his initial reaction to her suggestions. CBN News, a Christian news outlet not only refers to her as a “self-proclaimed witch” but predictably includes a reference to scripture that denounces “witchcraft.”
The fact that the use of identifiers like “self-proclaimed witch” go unchallenged not just by members of the broader Pagan community, but also by members of the media is telling.
The terms “Pagan” and “Witch” – and when they should or should not be capitalized – can be confusing, especially when the writer is unfamiliar with the belief systems they are attached to. TWH makes it a point to differentiate between the subtle generic and non-generic use of such terms, and has reported on past shifts in media use. Generally, the mainstream media is less interested in these subtleties and uses the lowercase.
But there are other forces at work to privilege the reporting of certain faiths. The Associated Press (AP) largely sets the standard with AP Style that is followed by most U.S. media and to date, they do not recognize Paganism, though they will capitalize an adjacent belief under its umbrella. Wicca famously was afforded capitalization in July of 2014, “Wicca” is now capitalized.
The AP draws its guidelines from how Webster’s New World Dictionary identifies words and which nouns it designates for capitalization. “Pagan” and “witch” are both understood as generic, much like “priest” or “rabbi.” But unlike the latter, there is no guidance on when to capitalize.
Cairril Lee (Adaire) Mills who founded in 1993 Pagan Educational Network (PEN) and started the “Dictionary Project” was instrumental in getting some dictionaries to modify their definitions of “witch” to less derogatory and more informative. Though most dictionaries and reference books still define the word “witch” in ways that definitely do not align with its modern usage nor actual practicing Witches.
And while there have been a number of campaigns by Witches and Pagans for media, and appeals to the Pagan community at large, to always capitalize Pagan and Witch, there has yet to be a broad embrace of the practice. Instead, ignorance and the lowest common denominator for language to understand minority faiths are consistently embraced.
The one exemplar is Merriam-Webster. That dictionary offers a second definition that is consistent with a modern understanding of Witchcraft:
But ignorance is usually dominant and Capitalism offers a justification. Witches and Pagans and frankly any reference to practicing a magical craft–be it Witchcraft, or even incorrectly to one of the Afro-Caribbean diaspores–is frequently used, often as part of a salacious headline designed to increase web traffic.
A recent example of this was a horrific case of a woman who murdered her infant and was characterized as being “into witchcraft” in both the headline and the within the reporting itself. Whether the woman was actually a practicing Witch, a dabbler, or into anything that was even remotely associated with the magical practice is unknown.
The sole source for that reference seemed to come from a neighbor who told reporters:
“She told me she liked to dip into witchcraft a little bit,” said Clay Connell.
Subsequent articles seemed to question the veracity of that quote later edited the neighbor’s comments out of their stories.
The originating source of the story will often set the terms and tone of the derivative reporting. If the first agency to report a story uses the term “self-proclaimed” it is likely that every other outlet that picks up the story also will. This makes it even more important to get it right the first time since once a story is out there, it will continue to circulate in its original form no matter what corrections or edits are made after the fact.
Imagine how the reporting would be roundly condemned and ridiculed if the headline was instead:
Virginia woman charged with murder of infant was ‘into Protestantism’
And her neighbor was instead quoted as “She told me she liked to dip into Protestantism a little bit.”
The blowback in response would’ve come from every organized Christian faith imaginable and very likely from a variety of other religious sects, too. The interfaith circles would have been on fire.
Attempting to connect someone accused of committing a crime, which is often horrific in its details, with an esoteric or magical practice, let alone a religious belief in Paganism or Witchcraft is nothing new.
Being a Witch, practicing Witchcraft, or some other spiritual practice that is not considered mainstream and not Christian has often been used to skew opinion, especially in divorce and custody cases.
People who commit crimes come in all sizes, shapes, and practice all manner of beliefs or none at all. With Christianity being the most widely practiced religion in the U.S., it stands to reason that the majority of crimes are likely perpetrated by Christians.
Yet you rarely, if ever, see a headline that proclaims “‘self-proclaimed Christian’ man stabbed his brother over a card game.” And nor should you unless the beliefs and practice were integral to the commission of the crime.
When TWH, indeed any resource within our community, allows the use of terms like “self-proclaimed,” “self-styled” and similar terms to be applied and go unchallenged, it feeds into allowing entire religious practices to be discounted, dismissed, and for Pagan and Pagan-adjacent beliefs, it perpetuates them continuing to be unrecognized as bona fide religious belief systems and practices. It underscores why TWH and our colleagues in Pagan media are needed to confront the bias.
The reality that should be sinking in for people no matter what their spiritual faith or belief, but especially those who are members of a minority religion, is that words matter. How we allow the media to define a person’s beliefs and practices is important. We – individually and organizationally – must call it out every time.
Until we collectively achieve the removal of this bias, expect more of the same.
- No comments yet. Be the first to post a comment.
Moon Phase Today
Now First Wednesday of the month from
7:30 PM EST till 9PM EST.
UNLESS it is on the 3rd it will then be on Wednesday
JOIN US HERE
This website is powered by Spruz