Editorial: The impact of misconstrued headlines

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As TWH reported yesterday, The Guardian ran an article last week with the headline, “Witchcraft and black magic contribute to increase in child abuse,” despite the fact that original report from the U.K. Department of Education does not make any mention of “witchcraft,” “black magic,” or “spirit possession.”

The headline caused a stir within the Pagan community around the world. As mentioned yesterday, a number of other news outlets – The Independent, Newsweek, and The Telegraphused similar language in their headlines when data released by the United Kingdom’s Department of Education, but reported by the Local Government Association (LGA).  It is only within the LGA report that the terms “witchcraft,” “black magic,” or “demonic/spirit possession” appears. The LGA report included the following statement:

Abuse of children based on faith or belief – which includes witchcraft, spirit possession and black magic – increased from 1,460 to 1,950 cases between 2016/17 and 2018/19, a rise of 34 per cent, with councils dealing with the equivalent of 38 such cases a week (emphasis added).

The language used in the headlines and the LGA report is troubling, because at no point do any of the accounts delineate between a folkloric belief in “witchcraft” and the modern religious practice of Witchcraft. The term, along with “spirit possession” and “black magic,” is carelessly used. Nor did these outlets take care to distinguish who, exactly, was being accused with “witchcraft” in these cases – the children who were victimized, or the adults who are alleged to have committed abuse.

Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye, 1850-1896 [Public domain]

The LGA’s article spoke to why The Wild Hunt exists: we report on our community and do our best to report, in a balanced way, what other outlets see as sensational.

TWH seeks clarity. When reporting on events such as the report released by the UK Department of Education, we look beyond the terms to understand the belief system and structure being described.  We also take care to always place quotation marks around the terms “witch,” “witchcraft,” and “witch-hunt” when referring to perceived ideas or practices that are not connected to or a reflection of modern Pagan practices.

We capitalize Witchcraft, Witch, and Pagan to more clearly delineate and recognize these terms as reflecting legitimate religious concepts, just as mainstream media does with the terms Christian or Muslim.

We deal with topics outside of contemporary Paganism all the time, even covering events that misconstrue the actions or beliefs of the Pagan community with those of criminals. But we don’t misunderstand beliefs that are Pagan.

For example, TWH has frequently reported on “witch-hunt” activity, and periodically runs a section in Pagan Community Notes under that heading. Earlier this year, we published a two-part interview with Damon Leff about the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) and efforts in many countries to stop murders connected to “witch-hunts.”

Logo of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance [courtesy]

The incidence of “witch-hunts” have continued in a variety of countries on the African continent, as well as in places in India. The victims of “witch-hunts” are generally not Pagans or Witches, but we consider it important to cover these stories regardless. We also report on immigrant communities who have spiritual beliefs that involve “spirit possession,” and cover issues that the mainstream media overlooks or presents incorrectly.

While it is more common in African countries and in India for the victims of “witch-hunts” to be women and older or elderly persons, children are more likely to be the victims in places like the United Kingdom. Too often, a child who exhibits behavior that many people might consider to be a mental or emotional issue and require medical treatment or assessment is instead identified as being “possessed” or a “witch.”

Any child who might be considered “different” in any way – being gifted or unusually intelligent, having a serious physical health issue, being autistic, being albino – can make them a target for such accusations. What results from these accusations is often characterized by social workers and law enforcement as abuse.

Parents who hold these such beliefs often choose to subject their “afflicted” children to unsanctioned “exorcisms” and “cleansing rituals” to rid them of their “evil.” These actions are often performed by someone the parents identify as a “healer” or “priest” from within the community.

The end result is that the child is subjected to what can best be described as torture. Children accused of being “witches” are routinely deprived of food and sleep, subjected to beatings, drownings, and other abuses. These abuses can end with the death of the child.

The problem for the Pagan community, and especially those that identify as Witches, is that the language used is not clear in delineating between “witches” and Witches. News agencies that have focused in on this single aspect of the reported data trot right up to the line of becoming sensational, if they do not actually cross it.

It does not help that the issues become even more confusing when cases like that of a 2017 report of a Ugandan woman and her Ghanaian partner living in east London being accused of using female genital mutiliation on their daughter are considered.

In that case, when investigators gained access to the couple’s home, they found evidence of actual Witchcraft practice, in the form of beef tongues with screws embedded in them to silence investigators and 40 limes with spells written on them placed in a freezer. Any practicing Witch would recognize these practices as Witchcraft and not “witchcraft.” Distinguishing those practices and providing the appropriate context for readers to understand their impact on the story requires a level of expertise mainstream outlets frequently fail to display.

Until government agencies and mainstream media outlets begin differentiating between “witches” and Witches, “witchcraft” and Witchcraft, and fully recognize Paganism and Witchcraft as bonafide and valid spiritual belief systems, these issues of confusion will continue. Fortunately for the various Pagan and Polytheist communities, The Wild Hunt will continue to report the news in an accurate and unbiased way that is vital for the health of the communities we serve.