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.
“… 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.
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.