How controversial could a witch be in 2014? Plenty, if you’re in Lancaster, Pa. -- where a newspaper ran a feature on a local practitioner, then killed it.
At issue is a long, friendly, garden-variety profile on Kim Cabot Consoli of Bainbridge, in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal. The May 17 feature, by a former GetReligionista -- the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans -- that described Consoli's "craft," how she practices it, her relationship with a Mayan teacher and Salem witch Laurie Cabot, etc. There was also a sidebar primer on things like the definition of "Wiccan" and whether witches worship Satan.
Then, as media watcher Jim Romenesko reports, the newspaper learned that Consoli had another record -- an arrest on charges of prostitution.
Then the story was quickly taken offline.
Here is the really interesting journalism hook in this story about a news story. The newspaper's editors then ran a lengthy mea culpa.
"Had this information been mined earlier, the story would never have been written, let alone published," executive editor Barbara Hough Roda wrote. She added some idealistic words about the need for "context, balance and thoughtful story play."
A closer look, though, suggests another motive for pulling the story: objections from readers about a feature article on a local witch. The prostitution arrest took up three of the 10 paragraphs. Consoli's witchcraft was the subject of four other paragraphs, including the first three:
Last weekend's Faith & Values pages carried an article about a Bainbridge woman who practices witchcraft.
The topic was not typical fare for the section, nor for our newspaper. Like many stories, its unusual nature made it newsworthy. Yet while the presence of one witch living among us is noteworthy, even unique, it is also true that Lancaster County is certainly not seeing a proliferation of Wiccans.
Our presentation and the amount of space we gave the story wrongly suggested the latter. Our report focused largely on one woman, and did not put witchcraft into a larger context of the faith and values of our community. Our overall treatment was certainly not proportional to the scope of the subject matter.
And further down in the article:
That doesn't mean we won't make mistakes. Or, as I discussed with readers who found the witchcraft subject matter offensive, that we will always agree about how we cover some stories, or whether we cover them at all. But we should be able to make a reasonable and thoughtful case for why we do what we do. And to be transparent about that process.
Somebody clearly called and wrote to complain. Probably a lot of somebodies. The newspaper's reaction: (1) Panic. (2) Kill the story and bury the body. (3) Apologize and move on.
Except that other readers began complaining -- about the decision to ax the feature. Among the 29 comments after Roda's article, Becky Weaver Blake said:
I really can't believe you think you shouldn't have run the story because it's not the majority religion or she has a record. First, the record has nothing to do with the story at hand. Second, just because a religion is not the majority religion/scary to followers of the majority religion does not mean it shouldn't be covered.
And avowed pagan Matilda Fisher said:
So, she has an arrest record. ... I see quite a few Christians, some within positions of power who have been arrested as well. Are you now going to limit Christian-based pieces?
Consoli herself naturally liked the article -- she ran a photo of it on her Facebook page. If she hadn’t, you couldn’t see the story unless you had the print edition from May 17. (Of course, Consoli didn’t add that it was killed online, perhaps because she didn’t want to repeat the part about her arrest.)
And the assertion that "The topic was not typical fare for the section, nor for our newspaper" doesn’t hold up. Not after the newspaper ran this article on Wicca and other neopagan faiths in 2011. And this one on the pagan/Wiccan holiday Beltane, which fell around Passover/Easter that year. Those two columns were part of a multi-part series on new age, pagan and native American faiths -- all by Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, the writer of the story on the witch.
Even the error in oversight about Consoli's arrest can happen to any reporter. Years ago at a daily newspaper, I profiled the founder of a new local meditation center -- and I got four days of angry calls. Turned out the guy was a former financial advisor, and he'd lost a lot of people a lot of money. My editor simply told me to check out unfamiliar sources a little more closely. He didn’t pull the story or apologize for even running it.
The Intelligencer Journal could have also followed up the story with the new details. That happens all the time, too. How many stories and TV reports have we all seen, on the California fires or the civil strife in Ukraine or the search for Flight 370, that reported inaccuracies, then corrected them?
It's such an ancient pitch: Step on stories that might offend some readers, and you’ll keep them happy. The trouble is that it ends up offending other readers who don’t like newspapers stepping on stories. In trying to avoid one controversy, you create another. Why not simply report the additional news?