How journalists can stop the spread of misinformation when reporting on the occult
Police in Fairfield, Conn., say new DNA evidence may help them catch the suspect who strangled a newborn boy and left his body by the banks of Lake Mohegan 26 years ago. But as police and reporters return the case to the public eye, they're also resurrecting rumors that Santeria or Palo Mayombe were involved in the killing.
The infant's body was laid on a piece of burlap pinned with crosses of St. Lazarus, surrounded by pieces of fruit, coins and food, according to police. Some inspectors claimed these were signs that the killing was part of a ritual, even though neither faith practices human sacrifice.
Police admitted the connection to Santeria was just a guess: "We called it Santeria because we had to label it something," Fairfield Police Lt. Mike Gagner told the Fairfield Citizen. "There are similar religions; we just don't know enough about the practices to say." Local television took it further, connecting the crime to Palo Mayombe, which a reporter erroneously called “a dark offshoot of the Santeria religion.”
Santeria and Palo Mayombe, which are not related faiths, both developed in Africa. Neither is particularly well understood in the United States. Santeria has just tens of thousands of followers, most of whom keep their beliefs to themselves. It's unlikely most Americans will knowingly encounter someone who follows Santeria or Palo Mayombe. Most of their exposure is through horror movies and the news, which usually don't portray them accurately.
That leaves the public's imagination wide open to suggestion when it comes to crimes with an occult element. Because reporters are eager to grab readers' attention, it's tempting to include an occult hook when there is one. Doing so without evidence, however, means spreading false -- even defamatory -- information about minority faiths and their followers.
There are plenty of ways to avoid these mistakes. Here are some tips for reporting on such crimes responsibly.
Don't take what police or other sources say at face value
Police aren't experts on the occult or minority faiths. Police academies don't teach these topics extensively. Once in a while, an officer decides to self-educate, but it's rare. Most police -- like most people -- don't encounter Satanists, Wiccans, Santerians or Thelemites every day, so they don't necessarily know more than we do about their practices.
When officers enter a crime scene, they seek items that might inform the investigation. For example, when Milwaukee, Wisc., roommates Raven Larrabee and Rebecca Chandler were arrested last fall for cutting an Arizona man 300 times, police noted the presence of two books at their apartment: the humorous "The Werewolf's Guide to Life" and the more serious "Necromantic Ritual Book." They also found a black folder titled "Introduction to Sigilborne Spirits."
Reporters ran with the information and speculated about sexy werewolf rituals. It was remarkable how this story spread for the week or two after it broke. This spring, one of the women denied any occult inspiration for the incident.
Without in-house expertise, police have sometimes consulted self-styled “occult experts,” such as the late Don Rimer, whose handbooks and seminars for police departments were full of misinformation. If police claim a link between a crime and a specific faith or occult practice, be skeptical.
Likewise, crime-scene neighbors aren't occult experts. In January, when a Cornwall, UK, woman's horse was slaughtered, locals Googled the date and linked it to a holiday found on an online “Satanic calendar” -- which had been fabricated by a fundamentalist Christian organization. Several news outlets, including the BBC, ran with the rumors before backing off in later reports.
Find & interview real experts
If the police say a crime has Satanic elements, find a local Satanist leader to vet the claims. If the neighbors say it's Santeria or Palo Mayombe, talk to the nearest botanica owner. Many of these faiths have leaders or public figures who are happy to discuss the facts and clarify whether elements of a crime bear any resemblance to their practices.
Over time -- particularly if you're on the crime beat -- you'll build up a list of reliable contacts who can respond quickly when you're covering a breaking crime story.
Relying on books is tricky, because so many are full of sensationalistic or false information. The Internet is worse; while there are reliable sites describing minority faiths and their practices accurately, it's tough to know which ones are legit, particularly when you're unfamiliar with the field and you're racing a deadline.
Write carefully, with attention to relevant details
When it comes time to write, be as clear as you can. If the police claim a murder was a specific religion's ritual sacrifice, but the expert you've talked to says his or her faith doesn't practice such sacrifices, spell that out. This is a chance not only to report facts about a newsworthy crime, but also clear the air of readers' preconceived ideas.
If you're stuck and can't find reliable information on the faith in question, be conscientious in your phrasing. There's a big difference between saying “the police are investigating a Satanic murder” and saying “police say they found a pentagram at the crime scene.” Such information doesn't necessarily belong in your lede; most crimes are attention-grabbing enough on their own.
Confessed suspects may provide their own clues, as well. When Murfreesboro, Tenn., police arrested John Lotts, Jr., in January on charges of stabbing a 5-year-old, they quickly latched on to his status as a member of the Church of Satan. Lotts told a reporter that he'd hurt the child after losing his temper -- and that Satanism was not involved. Even so, his faith got more play than the fact that Lotts is a convicted sex offender -- a much more relevant factor.
Prior criminal history and mental illness are more likely culprits in such crimes. And they make reader-luring headlines, too. Let these details take the lead, and tread carefully when police raise the specter of the occult. The reputation of the suspect, and of anyone who belongs to the faith in question, is on the line.