In a recent post at The Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters posted a link to Beth Winegarner’s excellent article offering sage advice to mainstream media when handling stories concerning the “occult.” Both writer cite recent news stories filled with sensational language and near-mythological facts about “occult” practices. As pointed out by Winegarner, the mainstream media often makes assumptions about occult practices that are damaging to the people involved, to the community, to the credibility of the writer and to the practice these non-mainstream religions.
At the end of her article, Winegarner reports that a convicted felon “told a reporter that he’d hurt the child after losing his temper — and that Satanism was not involved. Even so, his faith got more play than the fact that [he was] a convicted sex offender…”
Several months ago, I noticed a very similar phenomenon while working on the Buncombe County civil rights case for Lady Liberty League. In January through March of 2012, the rural communities surrounding Asheville, North Carolina found themselves in the trenches of a public religious rights debate. It started when a Pagan mother challenged the presence of Christian Bibles at the North Windy Ridge Middle School.
While scanning the media for reports on the civil rights story, I noticed that another “situation“ had arisen at a neighboring Buncombe County middle school. Kevin Mark Calloway, a science and math teacher at Owen Middle School was arrested on a federal child porn charges. In January and February, Calloway had been exchanging sexually-charged messages with an underage student. In addition, he used his spycam phone app to record 11-13 year old boys urinating in the bathroom for personal entertainment and for use in child pornography.
At its publicly-held March 1st meeting, the Buncombe County School Board was scheduled to discuss the Calloway situation;which they did. Oddly enough, this particular meeting attracted an unprecedented number of outraged community members. But were they there to support the firing of Calloway or to protest the lack of response time in removing Calloway from the schools? After all, the principal knew about the videos in January but decided to dismissed the case. No. The crowd was at the meeting to debate religious civil rights issues at North Windy Ridge Middle School.
The local Asheville media reported on both cases equitably. However, the civil rights case received far more extended media attention than Owen Middle School‘s child pornography case. Unlike the Calloway story, the North Windy Ridge Middle School case made “the news” far beyond its Western North Carolina borders. By the end of February, the story had been picked up by the Associated Press and the Fox News Network. Even the Los Angeles Times made it newsworthy. (And this doesn’t even take into account the blogosphere!)
Is the media only to blame? Not entirely. Within the Asheville-Citizen Times articles on the Calloway case, the public commentary is dominated by discussions of religious civil rights as they pertain to the North Windy Ridge situation. It appears that the public was more concerned about Paganism and religious debate than Child Pornography.
I realize that religion is a hot topic that pushes buttons; whether that debate includes “the occult” or not. However, this “debate” most certainly intensifies when Paganism is involved. And the media, who thrive on readership, know this. ”Reporters are eager to grab readers’ attention, it’s tempting to include an occult hook when there is one.”as remarked by Winegarner. This “occult hook” will also increase readership and attract outside media outlets – like vultures to carrion.
Concerning Bumcombe County, it is sad that the media’s focus and, subsequent public outrage, was centered on the civil rights case to the extent that they virtually ignored the child pornography story. Mr. Calloway, himself, certainly owes a debt to local Pagans for distracting the Buncombe County community, so his case could be handled quietly in the corner.
Which story should have gotten more attention? Both stories are equally as important and newsworthy. With that said, however, I would much rather have my child subjected to non-pagan prayer than a child pornographer. But that’s just me.