The Power and Responsibility of Movement Journalism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 12, 2012 — 45 Comments

For the past few days I’ve been considering how best to cover a controversy within a local Pagan community. This situation, I felt, did and does have repercussions for our movement as a whole, and has drawn opinions from national figures on what the best response would be. However, every time I’ve started to write the piece, I have hesitated. There is news here, but I also know that by holding up my magnifying glass to it I could inflame and re-litigate a situation that seems to have come to some sort of uneasy resolution. There is the very real possibility that my reporting, instead of adding more light, would just add more heat.

A journalism word cloud.

If I’m being honest, concerns of this nature have not stopped me in the past, though I have always held on to certain personal thresholds that must be met before I gave a local or internal matter a national/international platform.  Generally that threshold was when the parties involved in a local story, or an internal matter, made it public of their own accord, or involved figures within the Pagan movement who are known as teachers or leaders beyond their local stomping grounds. Today, however, almost everything is in the public eye, almost every local group has a Facebook page or official blog that can be read by anyone who cares to pay attention. Our movement, which once so valued its secrecy, has become transparent to an amazing degree in the last ten years. This has caused a number of smaller controversies to erupt on a larger scale, but it has also gained us better communication, more accountability, and more ecumenicism within the Pagan world.

While The Wild Hunt is today just one Pagan blog among thousands, it is still one of the very few that focuses almost exclusively on reporting community-driven news, and as such has been given a weight, and a responsibility, that makes me question the value and role of every post I write. I constantly ask myself what the effects of my media megaphone will have on a situation, and tried to error on the side of caution, but I know that not everyone has been happy with the way I’ve written or reported on every situation. An internal balance is struck on a regular basis between the needs of our movement, the needs of local communities, and what I believe the role of a movement journalist is.

Movement journalism, or advocacy journalism, is not unbiased. I’ve said time and time again that this outlet has a “pro-Pagan” slant and is unembarrassed about that fact. I know that this choice often eliminates me from the milieu of ”mainstream” journalism, but I also feel that mainstream journalism has its own shortcomings, especially when it comes to reporting on minority religions. A movement journalist gives its community what he or she feels we need to collectively know, and does so from an internal position, one that helps shape narratives that may later be picked up by mainstream reporters. We often act as filters, giving outsiders a curated glimpse into the achievements, and yes, controversies, of our communities. We don’t ignore bad news, or embarrassing situations, as longtime readers of this blog will attest, but we are mindful of how we present that information.

I have seen members of our community act differently when they knew The Wild Hunt was paying attention, giving more attention to producing official statements and press releases, preparing themselves for closer scrutiny. Often I try to reach out to, and work with, leaders and activists to prepare them for the sudden influx of attention. Indeed, I am regularly contacted by small groups who want me to profile their situation, hoping that I will drive support towards their initiatives or problems. Sadly, some have also seen my blog as a way to score points against, or promote gossip about, one figure or another. My relative centrality in the world of Pagan news means that many have tried to manipulate my coverage for their own ends. These, I believe, are all normal challenges to any movement journalist. Since we are a part of the thing we report on, we will always be pushed and pulled by those who interpret our responsibilities differently.

Over the years I have refused to write about a situation, even though I knew it would garner “hits” and page-views for my blog. Situations where I felt that drawing more attention would not improve our community in any way, or call some sector of our movement into account. I feel that all Pagan journalists need to remain ever mindful of the power they possess, and how each story they write about will reverberate beyond the story. We will each have to decide what our ethical pole-star is, as there is no Pagan journalism “pope” (thank goodness), but I hope each of us will wrestle with what is the most responsible way forward in every story we write. As someone who is trying to grow journalism within modern Paganism, I hope that we each see this role as a sacred trust that is used to strengthen and hold each other accountable, and that when we falter we are willing to own that failure and move forward in integrity.

As for the story I’m currently not writing about, I still don’t know if I’ll write about it, or how I’ll write about it if I choose to. I think it needs more time out of my spotlight so I can see how best to use my voice in a way that is helpful to all involved. I hope that all of us remain mindful of our power, and know that sometimes what we don’t write about can sometimes be as important as what we do write about. I hope all of us make decisions every day that are mindful of how we can grow and improve.

My blessings to all of you.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Guest

    Thank you, Jason.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

    I hope you do write about it. I’ve been concerned about press coverage of the issue. I think it’s always helpful to point out where we fail (so we don’t repeat the mistake) and how we handle things well (as an example to others).

    I’ve made my irritable opinion known, but I have to say that as much as I have been disappointed in the behavior of my co-religionists in this affair, I have also been inspired by them.

    • Guest

      I don’t see occasional use of Silence as “doing nothing”, but then, I’m a Witch, and that means being complicated.

      A person needs to really kind of know the situation and whether they can actually help to be an effective activist, and be sure you’re not being drawn into a complete mess.
      Walter Conkrite was a good reporter, and few would argue he wasn’t. He also chose what stories he would run based on his views and his *individual* ethics. That’s why he didn’t cover all the sexual proclivities of everyone in Congress and the White House and had to skip boosting a few ratings and being that much more famous.

      • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

        But you can cover stories without being sordid, or biased, or sensational. It has nothing to do with ratings or pageviews, but it does have to do with a conflict arising and being resolved well. That is something rare enough in our communities to be worth commenting on.

        • Guest

          Agreed. But what someone usually can’t do is cover a story well and throw valid opinions about it without actually knowing the situation

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            That’s what journalists do. They research, interview and find out.

          • Guest

            Realistically, Pagans often in-fight. If a journalist doesn’t have personal knowledge of the situation and has no evidence to go on, should they then should they still post about others in a disparaging way – particularly if it will harm further activist goals? There are too many people who are really willing to throw other people – particularly those who can’t fight back as strongly – under a bus and exaggerate or suggest what isn’t true.
            A reporter can retract their statements when they’ve made a mistake or misjudged and slandered someone, but it doesn’t put Humpty back together. People don’t read those nor remember retractions, even when heartfelt. The harm doesn’t get undone. That’s part of the responsibility as well. Even when someone knows something is true, there’s choices. I like that Conkrite didn’t out people. That would have been cruel in those days.
            So Journalists also decide what should be said and printed according to their individual ethics. I like that Jason thinks about these things. I applaud that. BB.

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            You seem to be making personal statements. I suggest that if you have an issue with me, then you address me directly without the cloak of anonymity.

            Harm has already been done by journalists in this particular issue. Silence doesn’t correct that harm.

          • Guest

            “You seem to be making personal statements. ”
            I’m trying to see how that could never be true for anyone when they write unless they were quoting someone else. Did you mean to say something else?

            “Harm has already been done by journalists in this particular issue. “yeah.Silence doesn’t build on it or take sides, which makes Jason the wiser
            BB and Thank you Jason

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            I’m declaring a personal moratorium on responding to anonymous people. You are not worth my time, and cowardly.

          • Guest

            Great that you’ll have a moratorium on responding to all those cowards who don’t put their legal names on all their internet posts.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Don’t mistake legality and visibility.

            I may not be using my legal name here, but I do have an online presence where the name I use is recognisable. Also, I will be changing my legal name to something that I feel is more representative of me.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1542692508 Peter Dybing

            Again tht is a very rude response on your part Star. Give the person a break, attacking people is not helpful.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1542692508 Peter Dybing

            Wow you call someone cowardly, because they disagree with you? What is that about? The person is simply making a point, no need to get personal and start attacking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.anton Kelly Anton

    Wonderful and thoughtful…thank you for not adding drama or taking sides, but reporting for our community!

  • Chris

    Jason, one of the cool things about this blog is that it’s not written by a blogger. It’s written by a journalist. Not to mention a journalist who tries to uphold the same standards of ethics and integrity that folks like Edward R. Murrow once held. I giggle periodically because you, a lone writer, do what a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate with all kinds of assets and resources can’t do. You give us the story as you see it, maybe an op-ed here and there, and then you let us think for ourselves. That’s real journalism. I hope it inspires some writers in the secular world to follow your example. Good job, guy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066316113 Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton

    Thank you. A thousand times.

  • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com/ Vermillion

    For the most part I basically think of TWH as my PNN, Pagan News Network. I figure if there’s an issue that you haven’t reported about or rounded up when you release the hounds then it falls into two categories: Either it doesn’t effect Paganism as a whole or it’ll give more attention to a subject that really doesn’t need it. I don’t know what story you’re not writing about. I’m only aware of one issue currently being discussed in other blogs but I haven’t really paid much attention to it as it doesn’t effect me at all.

    This post is one of the many reasons I trust your reporting.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    You are to be commended for conducting TWH with integrity and mindfulness.

  • http://twitter.com/miniver Jonathan Korman

    I wish that most “mainstream” journalists were as correct — or even just as reflective — about their professional ethics as you demonstrate you are here, Jason.

    And reading this …

    “I have seen members of our community act differently when they knew ‘The Wild Hunt’ was paying attention, giving more attention to producing official statements and press releases, preparing themselves for closer scrutiny.”

    … my thought was: GOOD.

  • http://www.facebook.com/greenmansean Sean Donahue

    Just a note of appreciation for your care in discernment. I don’t know what situation you are speaking of, but I greatly respect your integrity in taking the time to think and feel through the impact of what you might say . . . Silence to me is one of the greatest and least understood powers of the witch. Blessings to you in this silence, and may it lead to your speaking or not speaking in the ways that feel right and true to you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lupa-Bi/644493626 Lupa Bi

    Part of what makes this blog such a solid source for pagan news IS your ethical stance. Unfortunately among both pagans and the mainstream at large there’s this idea that dirt-digging and mud-slinging are par for the course in news and current event media, and so it’s sad that this post is such a rarity, at least in its openness and honesty. We can see similar ethics elsewhere in the pagan blogosphere, of course, but this sort of careful self-disclosure is a reminder of the need for integrity and what it can bring when built up over time.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I get my news from Google – it allows me a lot of flexibility in both topic and source.

    It was through the addition of a ‘paganism’ category filter that I discovered this blog (and Patheos as a whole).

    I’d say you do a good job, although (as a Brit) I often wonder if there isn’t a touch of US-centricism going on.

    • Zan Fraser

      Hey Leoht: I expect that, yes, there is a touch of “US-centricism” going on- this is a US Pagan blog-site that you (self-described as a Brit) are checking out. Obviously, US Pagan issues are going to be the main object of focus for a US Pagan blog; how are US Pagans going to be conversant with non-US Pagan issues enough to blog on them? I assume that it is the interest of US Pagan issues that brings you, as a Brit, to this site: may I ask, do you, as well, engage French Pagan sites and leave messages like, Good site, but it’s awfully Gallic, you know? How would you be if I were like, Good job with the Olympics, Leoht- but they were kind of British, huh?
      If you don’t like US-centricism: don’t check out an US Pagan site; The Wild Hunt (meaning Jason) is not under any obligations to be anything other than US-centric- cause it’s a US Pagan site.
      Bloody good job with the Olympics, by the way- for the Gods, Harry, and St. George! Now let’s go get us some kippers!!

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I wasn’t aware that Patheos (or the Wild Hunt) was devoted to American Paganism, actually.

        As for other sites, due to language barriers, I stick to English speaking ones. I am not aware of a British Pagan news/blog site. Not one without subscription required, anyway.

        What brings me to this site is an interest in Paganism, regardless of location.

        That said, Jason does cover events beyond the borders of the US and even if it is US-centric, that doesn’t make it a bad thing. Why take it that way? If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here.

  • http://www.miraselena.com/ Miraselena

    I battle this daily – as a writer and in PR industry. Life is an never-ending exercise in achieving and maintaining balance…

    Some careers provide a extra challenge. ;> Good job! Good Luck!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1546700084 Valerie Herron

    I think you should be more cryptic, Jason ;)

  • Sunweaver

    Choosing to stay silent when it would cause more harm than good is an honorable action to take (should that be the action you choose). As a reader, I greatly appreciate this sense of duty and responsibility and wish that all those who would call themselves journalists would show an equal level of discernment. This filter is what separates a real newsperson from someone who vomits facts and opinions. Thank you for not vomiting.

    Mindfulness is sexy and I hope that Hermes continues to bless you with eloquent speech.

  • Cat C-B

    I have, I think, been following just the story you are not covering. If it is the story I believe it to be, it’s on the edge–likely to be of interest to some, some for the wrong reasons (gossip and innuendo–we do love our gossip, don’t we?) some for good ones (watching our institutions mature and evolve over time). But covering the story more widely would indeed change the story, perhaps in ways that people who would be enthusiastic about coverage today would regret in five years, or in ten.

    And allowing some matters to remain local, and private, can be at least as useful to the Pagan community as public soul searching.

    I know that, as a Pagan with many years of experience in at least a half a dozen Pagan institutions, large and small, I’ve been privy to a number of stories that might have been covered, if there had been coverage like TWH at the time or if someone had courted publicity. That they were not I think actually worked in the community’s best interests: without the glare of publicity, it was possible for people to rethink their positions, negotiate agreements, mend fences, and make things better for the future. I’m not sure that would have happened with more cooks stirring the soup, and I think it is often for the best that people serving the Pagan community get a chance to think things through quietly, work quietly, without fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety getting in the way.

    What is newsworthy is always a judgement call, and always has some effect on the events that unfold. I could wish mainstream journalists would think about that.

    As for the underlying issues that are of broader interest, and lasting importance? Not everything important can be said as news. Some things about how we evolve and grow as a religious movement are going to be the territory of other kinds of writers: essayists, theologians, teachers. How To Do Community is going to be a theme of news stories for a long time to come, yes… but perhaps this is a place where bloggers and book authors will have an edge over journalists, at least at times.

  • Lorna Tedder

    Funny, Jason. As someone who doesn’t use her journalism degree because of the rampant sensationalism and emotional manipulation in the so-called news, I’ve been talking to my young adult daughters about shows like Newsroom & how journalism was prior to the 1980 launch of CNN & filling airtime with whatever it took to keep the biggest audience. I named you specifically as an old style journalist with integrity over ratings. Even though you have a Pagan slant & topics, I find you to be remarkably objective in reporting good & bad, but still avoiding the sensational & the sordid. You have my respect.

  • Druid San Diego

    Jason, approach it as a journalist and maintain your pesonal integrity and values. After reading your blog for nearly a year, meeting you at Pantheacon and listening to you in interviews, I think that you have a desire to report and present facts of situations. I think if you venture into opinion, you will let the readership know.
    Sometimes the controversial items that may show the internal issues in Paganism also need to be shown. If nothing else, to help shed light to the rumors and give information so people can be informed by facts and comments by those involved and not on rumors and 3rd, 4th, or even more filtered heresay.
    Thank you for being dilitgent.

  • kenneth

    Good reporting rarely creates more heat than light. There is such a thing as exploiting a controversy or airing what truly is an internal private matter. On the other hand, the instinct to protect one’s own can do them a real disservice. There are ugly issues that need to be aired out. In any case, it’s not even possible to keep a lid on any controversy of any standing the way it was when mass communication was controlled by top-down entities under Edwardian gentleman’s codes. These days, everything is real time and there are no secrets. If this story has legs, whatever it is, versions of it WILL get out. The fact that you need to even address your ambivalence in writing about it in such a public way indicates that there is some real buzz already afoot. If it turns out to really have legs and you let events get too far ahead of you, you risk abdicating journalism’s only real power to effect change for the better.

    That power derives from journalism’s ability to step outside of a story, do the legwork, and present a reasonably neutral picture of what is going on. Where rumor campaigns diffuse accountability for statements into the stratosphere, journalism goes directly to the sources and puts a name to a statement, plus context, history of the people and issues and what the possible implications might be.

    In my 15 or so years in the business, I came to view journalism as intelligence work, in the best sense of the word. Presidents, Congress, captains of industry – every day those people get briefings or much more detailed reports of everything important in their worlds. Ideally, they are compiled with no agenda other than to give the decision maker the very best information, even guesswork, that can be had. Real journalism is the only intelligence agency which works for the community at large. Regular folk in any community deserve and need the best, most up to date information and dispassionate analysis that can be had. As with presidents, they may choose to act well on that information, but without it they have no chance.

    There are plenty of judgement calls in making those reports at every level. I kept a lot of secrets, including things that would have technically been fair game for stories and pretty lurid ones at that. I also tried to employ the “heat vs light” consideration, knowing that the two always occur together to some degree. I also realized that people, in the aggregate, decide when a story is news. When it became clear the story, or some versions of it, were already “on the street”, I knew it was time to develop the story, and air it out as well as possible.

    Take it for what it is – some cheap advice from the sidelines, and some sympathy from someone who has been in your shoes more than a few times.

  • http://stripey-badger.blogspot.com/ Rowan

    This is timely for me.

    I have nowhere near the readership you have, but sitting in my ‘Saved’ queue is a blogpost I wrote tonight, which touches on some concerns specific to how pagan communities tend to be structured and run. I saved it, instead of publishing it, because I am not yet sure if I want to say some of the things in it. It has commentary on some aspects of paganism that might be harmful to our community, and I set it aside because I thought, “I am not saying these things in the most mindful, helpful, productive manner I could, and even though fewer than a hundred people might see this, if one of them wanted to harm my community I wouldn’t want to give him the words to do it.”

    I’ll eventually speak on my topic; it’s too important to me to stay silent. However, your post has reinforced my decision to be mindful of how I present my community and its problems. We don’t need to dig at one another, and we don’t need to score points or talk trash. We need to have productive dialogue, one that balances the need to respect delicate or developing situations against the need for growth through shared learning.

    Thank you for this, and for working to maintain your own integrity.

  • Michael Redmond

    As someone who has spent some 35 years in mainstream journalism, I applaud Jason’s piece. He is showing an admirable sense of responsibility regarding the community he is writing to serve. Restraint in advocacy journalism can be a good thing, when it’s voluntary. Our entire society suffers from TMI overload and the 24-hour news cycle is accomplishing little other than the trivialization of the news. Everybody does not need to know everything all the time. What ensues is a loss of reflection and reasoned dialogue. A welter of voices, all shouting, and the reporting of Jennifer Aniston’s upcoming nuptials as noteworthy news …

  • Polly Moller

    Thank you very much for this thoughtful post contextualizing your place in our realm. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say everything changed when you came along and began reporting on our community with the seriousness and professionalism it deserves, and calling all of us to greater account. We are exceedingly fortunate to have you.

  • http://profiles.google.com/emkatcreations Kat Emralde

    I had a whole huge response written out… it comes down to: Thank you for not being the TMZ of the pagan world.

  • Larissa Guran

    I’ve been scanning your blog lately wondering when/if the issues (I think) you are referring to would show up and what it would mean for the community involved. I’m glad to see that you are thinking carefully about the impact your coverage might have on the situation. Thanks for all you do for our community and the intention with which you do it.

  • Northern_Light_27

    Great post, Jason. I’m pretty certain I know what situation you’re not writing about, and I honestly can’t see a thing in it that would benefit from your covering it right now. Yes, you’re absolutely right that there are critical meta-issues in there about how we go about community that absolutely need to be discussed on as large a stage as possible, but I think the decision to let it be for a while until the personal can be separated from the meta is a wise one.

  • kenneth

    Going back to what I said earlier about knowing when a story has legs, I’ve figured out what the big stink is, unless there’s more than one such fire raging within local pagan groups of late. If I can figure it out, it’s already well into circulation. I have no contacts whatsoever in the “in” crowd of pagan celebrity, and I didn’t even really cast around that long online.

    The matter is personal and local and sort of “in-house”, but it has big-time implications for how and whether pagans will ever be able to organize themselves beyond the coven/circle level. It goes to huge issues about accountability and transparency and professionalism and, less directly, stewardship of donor dollars.

    I don’t pretend to know the merits of the individual accounts of who did what to whom, but the underlying discussion of governance models and professionalism transcends all that. If our community, broadly speaking, fails to engage these issues, we will keep falling into the same traps, and worse ones. Anyone who is tempted to hide all of the community’s skeletons in the closet “to avoid scandal” would do well to ask the Catholics how that’s worked for them.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    Jason: speaking as someone who has been in the Pagan journalism gig for more than two decades I can offer the following advice: if the topic is “on the bubble” and you are not sure whether to cover it or not — wait a decent interval. (In the blogosphere, that might be a week, in print, it’s more six months.) If it’s really important, that will become apparent; if not, you will have a chance to spend your time on more than covering brush fires that don’t, in the end, amount to anything. Just my nickel; your mileage may (and probably will) vary.

    BTW, in re your FB post; I’d miss your daily posts, but longer pieces less frequently would seem equally valuable to me. And finding a way to make the material you put out less transitory would be a MAJOR upgrade.

    • kenneth

      Waiting just to have an “interval” is a really bad idea. That time should be spent developing the story from a public interest angle. If one cannot find that, then it’s reasonable to let it go or save it for “war stories” hour with other journalists at the bar.

      This decision should not be driven by the fear of giving the parties involved a platform for personal warfare. It’s not about them. It’s about governance and how it responded or failed to respond to events. It’s about whether those in charge made reasonable decisions given what they knew or should have known at the time. It’s about whether they followed policies, or had any to follow. It’s about what will or won’t be learned going forward.

      If we ignore the bigger story at play or fob it off as a “brush fire”, it won’t burn out. It will accumulate tinder for the next conflagration. Sooner or later, one of the brush fires will break out at a level that will be covered in the mass media, and on the least sympathetic terms possible. If we don’t engage the issues at play here, and in a reasonably timely fashion, they will overtake us, and they will define pagan organizations in the lowest possible terms and give the community in the aggregate a reputation as a movement of unprofessional losers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Happydog-Potatohead/780639610 Happydog Potatohead

    It’s good to be circumspect. On the other hand, being circumspect can lead to self-censorship, which can lead to a total shutdown. Sometimes being inappropriate is necessary.

  • Peter Dybing

    The fact that these are things you are thinking about is one reason why I love both you and The Wildhunt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1542692508 Peter Dybing

    Concerning the issue you are referring to. It is my belief that the local PNC did a great job engaging in balanced reporting on the issue. It was important to the process, yet also a level of coverage that reflected the local nature of the issue. Those who would encourage you to cover this are not the people involved or those with a stake in the outcome. I applaud your circumspect approach to this.

  • Veracity

    Thank you Jason. This is exactly why I read your blog.