Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The pagan story: What we learned...

On Sunday, my story on neo-pagans in the Lowcountry appeared on the cover of our Faith and Values section. The mainbar ran about 95 inches and told a story of the last 14 months in the local pagan community, beginning with the suicide of that community's most visible and controversial figure.

The sidebars, just counting the text, ran another 80 inches. You can find my links to all the elements of the package here, on the special blog I created just to keep the subjects of the story connected to the final assembly of the package.

Janet, who in addition to being my wife is also the paper's chief designer, put the whole thing together, giving good play to photos by staff photographer Mic Smith. It sprawled across four pages of broadsheet newsprint.

Writing about neo-paganism was one of my first goals when I returned to reporting. As an editor, I had dealt with so many people -- including cops and a police chaplain -- who assumed that Wiccans were devil worshippers. They simply didn't know better -- and if you've been told that someone worships the devil, why would you go out of your way to hear their side of the story? Pagans have a story to tell, but their well has been poisoned by centuries of Western civilization.

We didn't have a Faith and Values section when I started reporting the story, but once it was created I figured that was the appropriate place for the package. The big question was, would the paper's editors be comfortable running such a story in a section that many of our readers still call "the church section"?

Answer: Despite some nerves and obvious discomfort around the newsroom, the paper's leadership never flinched from this story. That in itself is a minor miracle. I can say with no fear of inaccuracy that such a thing would never have been allowed six years ago.

With that resolved, I began thinking about the readers. What kind of reaction were we likely to get? My feeling was that the package would likely be panned by a few, but that most people in Charleston are mature enough to see that explaining another religion is not the same thing as an attack on their own religion. However, I did expect a bit of a "normative" reaction, people upset that we were giving legitimacy to a group they wanted to view as "weird."

On Friday, as the piece went to press (with extremely minimal edits), everybody I spoke to said the same thing: "I hope you're ready for the phone calls." I attached my phone number and e-mail address to the story.

So, here's phone/e-mail/misc. comment tally, as of Tuesday afternoon:

Phone calls: Two. One was a guy asking me to put him in touch with one of the witches because he had a suspicion that somebody had hexed him, the other just a "normal" guy calling to say how much he liked the story and that he "had been reading this rag for 22 years and I can't believe (you guys) could pull this off." This doesn't include phone calls from people who were in the story, who called up to say they were happy with it and hearing nothing but good things.

E-mails: I stopped counting the good ones. I'm still waiting for the first critical e-mail.

Misc.: The editorial page received this e-mail on Monday as a Letter to the Editor. However, it cannot run as such because the writer did not want her name to be used and didn't give her contact information.

I was appalled at the article on the front page of Faith and Values. I do not think that suicide is a value we should uphold! And to give place to Wicca on the front page is not appropriate on Sunday when our country is founded on Christian beliefs. The bible says that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and I don't think that should be promoted on the front page!! I was deeply distressed to see more than 3 pages on paganism worship in this newspaper!
I know I am not alone in this and hope that from now on, we can count on Faith and Values--Values of Life! Sincerely, (Please withhold my name)

Also, this morning our ombudsman ran this comment and response in her column (emphasis added by me):

Q: I am thoroughly disappointed that on Mother's Day, The Post and Courier did not feature the strong belief of the mothers of those boys who were lost at sea. Instead you feature pagans and witches on your Faith and Values section. I understand the need to report on a point of view different from mainstream religions. But why on a day when you had this option? Mary Rhett, peninsula.
A: I think you'll agree that (the paper) has not shied away from addressing the spiritual side of the rescue story. Reporters have interviewed the boys and their family members about how their faith sustained them. Front-page headlines said "It's a miracle!" and "It was just me, Troy and God." It is tempting to revist that story because it feels so good. Inded, on Sunday there was a front-page story chronicling the seven-day ordeal. Interviewing the mothers again would seem to me to be overkill.

Do I think we've heard all the response we're going to get? No. The story came out on a Sunday, so all the sermons were already written. It ran inside the paper on Mother's Day and was barely promoted off the front. Sometimes stories like this need a little time to perculate through the community before they find the people who are going to be angry about them.

But I think this lack of a violent reaction also says something about Charleston. We are stereotyped as backward. We aren't. And even though this is, without a doubt, a conservative community, it is not generally an ignorant one. Charleston is far more cosmopolitan than the general image people have of the South.

Everyone who writes for the public must work with an abstract image of their audience. Every now and then, reporters and editors do well to update that image. This might be one of those times.

After notes (5/11/05):

Here's a different perspective -- a pagan who disliked the article:

Dear Mr. Conover,
Being one of the people you first contacted through Witchvox when you decided to do
this article (although I chose not to be involved publicly, due to my husband not
wanting our name known and having to deal with backlash in his frail health), I
followed the path you were taking in your investigation and research, in the emails
you sent all of us and the blog you kept. I was excited when I learned the article
was to be published this past Sunday, and eagerly ripped open the paper that morning
to read it. My excitement died and saddened dismay and disbelief replaced it as I
reached the end of it. Instead of a straight forward, no-facts-witheld article on
paganism and WIcca that I was expecting, we got a highly sensationlized piece that
focused on the suicide of one local pagan group's leader, due to accusations of
improper conduct with a minor and its resulting loss of his business/depression, and
his covens reaction. And then to include the hint of possible resentment and
dissension between local groups? You dropped the ball, Mr. Conover. All the
disjointed little side pieces you included along with the article should have been
what your article was really about. You have done low country pagan's and Wiccan's
no favor in the publication of this piece. If anything, you have hurt how the
public views those who follow these alternate paths even further. I am proud of my
religious choices, and will vehemently defend them. But it saddens me that those
who don't know the truth about my path, and the path chosen by thousands of others,
still do not know the truth despite your disjointed efforts to enlighten them.

Blessed Be,