Pagan News, Grassroots Journalism, and the Mainstream Media

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 28, 2011 — 12 Comments

Today the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s education blogger, Maureen Downey, took notice of the now-resolved difficulties faced by the Turner family of Bowden, Georgia, whose son, Christopher (11), was facing religiously-motivated harassment by his school.

Turner Family Support Team

Turner Family Support Team (from left to right): Rev. Charissa Iskiwitch, Stephanie Turner, Rev. Ginger Wages, Lisa Palmer, and Rev. Michelle Boshears

“… some argue that not all religions are met with hostility in the classroom, only those far outside the mainstream. That complaint was made this month via an Internet campaign on behalf of a pagan family in Carroll County. Stephanie Turner said her 11-year-old son was singled out and punished after he took off the neopagan holiday of Samhain. Once the boy returned to class, his teacher allegedly questioned him and said,  ‘Paganism is not a religion.'”

While this issue has been resolved since December 14th, I’m certainly not going to begrudge the AJC for jumping on this story so late, any mainstream press attention to victories for the equal rights and treatment of Pagans is welcome. I keenly understand how hard it is to cover everything of note when you’re a solo news-blogger covering a wide and complex beat, so I’m glad this story is reaching more people, even after the fact. That said, I think Downey’s blog post provides a perfect example of how Pagan stories eventually get noticed by the upper echelons of our news media. Simply put, how does Pagan news get wider attention?

The saga of the Turner family was first covered, so far as I can tell, by the Atlanta Independent Media Center (IMC), who wrote about the story on December 3rd. Indymedia/IMC is a progressive grassroots journalism organization that rose up during the WTO “Battle of Seattle” protests of 1999. Their focus is on social and economic justice, and the network can be a rich source of local news. Once this story was written, people started sharing it on social media networks like Facebook, where it was brought to my attention. My first mention of the story was in a link roundup on December 5th. That same day, a representative from Dogwood Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess, which covers Georgia, was also responding the social media buzz and reached out to the Turner family. By December 8th a coalition of local and national Pagan groups was formed, were working with the Turner family, and had released their first joint statement.

“In addition, a Task Force of local and national Pagan organizations have come together to help resolve issues between the Turners and BES. The Task Force also hopes to provide the school with Pagan accommodation information and materials with the hopes of avoiding misunderstandings and other problems in the future. Represented in this group are the North Georgia Solitaries (NGS), both the localand national chapters of the Covenant of the Goddess, Circle Sanctuary and Lady Liberty League.”

A Facebook page was created by this coalition to focus and coordinate support, which was spread far and wide. Now there was a centralized coalition that was sending out regular updates to press and supporters. This combination of coordination, social media buzz, and Pagan media outlets reporting on the story culminated on December 14th with the successful settlement of the matter, which I reported (and thus it appeared on Google News searches), and it was crowned by an interview with the mother, Stephanie Turner, by Coalition member Selena Fox of the Lady Liberty League on her Pagan Warrior Radio show. After that I did one follow-up link to a coalition statement, and moved on to other stories.

So what, exactly, led AJC blogger Maureen Downey to the story? It seems likely that she was tipped off by a local reader to the Facebook page and by the time she was ready to write about it, the issue was resolved. Her narrative was certainly influenced by direct contact with Selena Fox, and its clear she read “websites and pagan organizations that took up the Turner family cause,” though she oddly links to a petition that was shut down on December 9th at the request of the Turner family support coalition as an example of those “websites and organizations”. Perhaps if the matter was still unresolved, this might have led to more ongoing and serious coverage from the mainstream media. Which leaves us with a perfect example of how the Pagan news ecosystem works.

The Pagan News Ecosystem

The Pagan News Ecosystem

Far from a hierarchical top-down or bottom-up system, today news builds momentum by generating more and more discussion and reporting until it is noticed at a national or international level.  In the Turner family story, almost all the “spokes” of this ecosystem came into play. Locally-focused grassroots news sites, social media, national Pagan media, Pagan blogs and podcasts, information and coordination from Pagan organizations, and finally, reporting from mainstream news outlets. The more the various elements of the ecosystem coordinate and communicate, the faster news disseminates and goes “viral”. Not every element is necessary every time, but usually most “big” stories about modern Pagans involved many of the players seen in my graphic above.

The point? The point is that media coordination works to not only spread awareness, but also motivates for change and, in the case of the Turner family, produces results. This is why a healthy and robust Pagan media is important, and why Pagan organizations need to take their PR and media outreach seriously. Because we were all paying attention when a local Indymedia bureau wrote about this story, some measure of justice was achieved. Without social networking or a growing Pagan media, this issue might have incubated for months, or even years, before in maintained enough momentum to gain the attention needed. Now, it can be achieved in less than two weeks. That’s good for the Turners, and good for modern Paganism.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Anonymous

    The point? The point is that media coordination works to not only spread awareness, but also motivates for change and, in the case of the Turner family, produces results. This is why a healthy and robust Pagan media is important, and why Pagan organizations need to take their PR and media outreach seriously.

    Very true. And, I’ll add, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, that this is also why framing matters. As the mainstream media picks up stories from Pagan media, it’s important for them to pick up framing that supports, rather than undermines, our objectives.

    Thanks for covering this.

  • I’d say it’s far more likely the local CoG chapter brought the story to the AJC. CoG and the older Atlanta trads tend to have good AJC contacts.

  • Thanks for all your Pagan Media-centric work.

  • I am grateful for the Pagan News Media and for everyone who puts their Pagan thoughts and opinions on the web. I was in South Georgia recently and I was very distressed by the Bible Belt attitudes and propaganda. I came across an advertisement for the “Brides of Christ” and it sent a cold chill down my spine. I wondered could I go around spouting “I’m married to the Goddess?” in South Georgia? I think not. I was very grateful to come home to the North, where attitudes are more liberal and we are accepted by the community. While I was in Georgia, I googled Pagan meetups, just to see where I could find community if I did live there. The closest place to where I was, was in Montgomery, Alabama (of all places) approx. 70 miles away or I could drive 2 hours to Atlanta. Scary.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    “[…M]edia coordination works to not only spread awareness, but also motivates for change and, in the case of the Turner family, produces results.”

    “Produces results” is the bottom line for me. This media action produced results because it brought in the likes of the Lady Liberty League. I’ve always pined for a larger Pagan religious liberties defense arm, but perhaps a sufficiently articulate Pagan media-verse can accomplish the same thing. I’m a fossil of the XXth Century and not used to modern social media.

  • Very Nicely done, and yet it does leave out one idea, the Press Release. This is a powerful tool that does add to this. We have used this pretty heavily and it then gets into this ecosystem.

  • Yea, … What he said!

    “and why Pagan organizations need to take their PR and media outreach seriously.”

    Okay, so I’m a bit biased. I’m the PR consultant on the Turner task force AND the PIO for the local Georgia CoG organization. So of course, I’m going to have to agree.

    (As for the AJC, I could get into the back and forth over how the AJC found out about this. But its pretty boring stuff. But it is good to know that main stream media, including news and entertainment, are becoming increasingly interested in Wicca as it exists in reality. And good PR … is the key!)

    PIO Dogwood LC

  • You have to understand that this was a story that the mainstream media could not resist. You have a kid being being picked on by a teacher for his religion. This is the stuff they love. First, the victim is a kid, that gets them into the “defend the weak” mode. Second, the bad guy is the teacher. Now they know that everyone hates teachers because everyone has a memory of one bad teacher as a kid. So this is the perfect stock villain. The fact that the kid is a pagan is peripheral. It truly does not matter as far as the story goes. What matters is they get to be on the side of the angels and self-righteous about it at the same time.

    Now, if you really want to play the game, remember that school administrators and teachers are the 2012 equivalent of the Southern sheriff in 1965. Play that card right and you cannot fail to get good PR.

    • You sound as if you are schooled in the dynamics of the American Hollywood narrative.

      Your summation is dead-on!

      However, that “card” has its own long-term personal and social repercussions which must be considered in all cases. We aren’t in a movie that turns off after 90 minutes. We have to consider all angles.

      In my experience, public relations can be both a fine, subtle weaving or a loud splash of paint. And, neither is universally effective or beneficial.

      But you are right..this case was media candy.

  • Hugin

    In my opinion, social media is the most powerful weapon in history. Social media is what’s allowed people all over the world to topple dictators and demand reforms this past year. With social media, there are few limits to what can be achieved.