By Tracy Dingmann
The Albuquerque Journal is finding out what happens when you stick a largely irrelevant detail about someone’s faith into a headline about murder and plaster it across the front page.
People get mad!
That’s what happened with the story headlined “Police: Wiccan Stabbed Man,” which ran across the top of the Journal’s front page on Mar. 24.
The story detailed the arrest of a woman who told police she had killed a man in self-defense after going to the mountains with him to “celebrate the Wiccan rites of spring.” The piece included the detail that the woman told police she stabbed the man with a small Wiccan dagger after he tried to sexually assault her.
But the story’s pointed headline, prominent placement and salacious characterization of the alleged involvement of Wiccan practices in the murder really bothered a number of Journal readers, some of whom wrote to the paper to complain.
And it wasn’t just Wiccans who were upset, although one Wiccan did complain that her group was portrayed unfairly:
“I am always concerned when I read stories like this in the news, because it paints a picture that we are all devil-worshipping freaks who exist on the dark fringes of society, wearing all black and pentagrams and needing blood sacrifices for our unholy altars to Satan.”
The reader continued:
“I am always disheartened with the media latches onto the Wiccan aspect of any story and puts my faith on trial instead of the person who committed the act. It is not done to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or any other faith when one of its followers kills someone.”
Another reader took the paper to task for its lack of skepticism regarding the alleged murderer’s claim to even be a Wiccan at all.
“After this blaring headline, your article notes all the inconsistencies of her story, but keeps harping on the fact that she says she’s a Wiccan. By the end of the article, I have learned that (she) is (allegedly) delusional, manipulative and violent.”
I realize that the Wiccan angle is a crucial part of the woman’s confession, and that is it part of the official story the reporter got from the police. So it does have a place in the story. But it is played up ridiculously in the headline – and even if the rest of the story tamps down the claim, it’s too late for everyone who already read the headline and thinks a crazy Wiccan lady murdered some poor guy.
Interestingly, the reader concludes with this damming claim:
“Your article marginalizes a group you know nothing about.”
Here’s my editorial comment – yes, that article, with that headline, does exactly that. And presenting a one-sided, sensationalized view of one race or religion or community or group is exactly what local newspapers are supposed to AVOID doing.
Unfortunately, happens way too often at the Journal. A story like the Wiccan murder saga is a perfect example of why so many groups that aren’t in the so-called mainstream dislike and mistrust the Journal. They – all too often correctly – perceive that they won’t get a fair share or a balanced portrayal in the paper, which is run by and appeals mostly to a very narrow sector of the public.
I have talked to plenty of people from longstanding groups or constituencies who avoid talking to the paper, because they fear their stories won’t be told in full in favor of other forces in play there. They think they might get cheap-shotted in a headline. And guess what, all too often, they do.
Check around with your family and friends and neighbors – who doesn’t have a Journal horror story?
It’s a longstanding PR problem that goes way beyond Wiccans – and one the Journal really should start caring about one of these days.