How a religion story is made for NPR

Religion reporting is no easy task, especially when you ask to participate in usually private gatherings like Bible studies or ask to observe a worship service. And then some people want to pray with you or convert you, even if you’re trying to keep yourself out of the story like any other kind of coverage.

If you try to add a tape or video recorder, sources tend to get nervous or clam up. I cannot imagine the challenges reporters in public radio face when they pursue a religion story. Thankfully, we get to take a peak behind the scenes with former ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s last piece for NPR on making a radio story. Lucky for us, she chose to shadow religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty through the origins of a story to its completion.

Bobby actually looked at the same story that Hagerty was working on at the time, one of the earlier reports on Harold Campings claims that the rapture would take place May 21. At the time, Bobby asked questions about whether to take such stories seriously, sarcastically or whether they should be ignored.

Shepard watched Haggerty to find out how she got the idea (listener called it in), how she found sources (she made over 40 phone calls) and how she shaped the piece (questions about tone come up). They first talked on April 26 and the story ended up on the air on May 7.

“You think ‘Okay, how do you approach this story for NPR?’” On the other hand, Hagerty says, “Right now, you hear murmerings in a lot of very conservative Christian groups that we are in the end times.”

Hagerty found a small business owner outside of Philadelphia who strongly believed that he would be raptured on May 21. However, his wife and children didn’t share his beliefs. He invited Hagerty to listen in on a Bible study of 25 people in his home, but his wife opposed the idea and they ended up meeting in a nearby McDonald’s.

She also interviewed Harold Camping for 40 minutes and uses 26 seconds in the piece. One of the startling parts of the piece is when Hagerty takes up to 10 hours of tape to use (this story ended up being 6 minutes and 29 seconds). She wanted to use a recording that took place in a flea market but the audio wasn’t very good.

Print/online reporters sometimes use recorders to check quotes or if they’re doing a straight Q/A, but that is a lot of tape to go through to check the sound quality and quotes. Hagerty says that for an average feature piece, she takes an hour of tape for every minute that will end up airing. That’s a lot of tape to plow through. Shepard shows a snippet of how she can shave off some time from the interview before she “shows” us Hagerty with her editor.

Shepard: This is a particularly sensitive piece. They’re telling NPR listeners about people who seriously believe the world will end in two weeks. Both are thinking about how the piece will come across.

To clarify this point, people who held Camping’s beliefs about May 21 did not believe that the world will end (in theory, that will come in October). They believed that the rapture would occur, when true believers would be taken to heaven. Here’s more of the editing process with national editor Steve Drummond:

Shepard: Hagerty wants to cut out of an adverb for fear of how it will be misinterpreted.
Hagerty: I kind of don’t like the word ‘phonetically’ because it feels a little too judgmental.
Drummond: I do, too.
Shepard: Both are also worried about tone. They want to be respectful but not gullible.

Drummond: There is sort of pushback that you want to hear without being angry or disrespectful to people’s faith. There are some pretty serious questions you want to ask of someone who has a job and they have two little kids. The main issues of this piece are issues of tone, and we have to get it just right.

Shepard: The editing session lasts an hour. Drummond wants Hagerty to go back through her interview with the Florida couple. He’s hoping to hear some gentle pushback from Hagerty to the Martinezes. Outside of his office, she confesses.
Hagerty: I don’t think I have it. It was one of those situations that I was so surprised at what she said that I just let it hang there.
Shepard: She’s running out of time.

Shepard explains that the producer will do the mixing, the interviews, the narration, ambient sound (sound from the background) into a ready-to-air piece. The producer happens to be a fan of the program of Camping’s Family Radio but couldn’t get behind the May 21 prophecy. Of course, that just piqued my curiosity even more about this producer who works for NPR and listens to Family Radio, but it was just a mention in passing.

After the story aired, we find out that the sources were pleased with the piece, which was a plus for Hagerty so she could call them back on May 22. But most wouldn’t pick up or wouldn’t talk on tape. And so goes the challenges for a public radio reporter.

Overall, this ombudsman story is a nice publicity piece for NPR, a piece to point to when people ask how an NPR story is made. We’re just glad she chose religion to show the added complexities when you put audio into the mix.

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  • Dan Crawford

    Shepherd’s puff piece doesn’t begin to explain why NPR does such a consistently lousy job dealing with stories having a religious angle.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Dan, I’m not sure you could have expected her to go into the logic of religion reporting per se since she happened to choose a religion reporter, but Hagerty is a pro who is focused in religion and consistently produces good work, IMHO.

  • Jerry

    So far I’ve not found a transcript but hopefully one will show up so I can read the entire piece (unless I missed it?)

    But I really appreciate the look at how a piece is put together and reviewed. Having details about a well-constructed story helped me understand the process better. I also hope that reporters can pay attention to the care that was involved in putting together the story and thus profit from the example.

  • Kris D

    Did NPR feel the need to post this on the ombudsman blog after the debacle of the new ombudsman’s first post about women priests?

  • Bruce427

    ** Hagerty says, “Right now, you hear murmerings in a lot of very conservative Christian groups that we are in the end times.” **

    The Bible is clear that the “end times” began with the death and resurrection of Christ. But…the Bible does not say just how long the “end times” will last (after all, it took approximately 2,500 years to get from recorded Biblical history to the coming of Christ). Christ Himself said, “only the Father knows.” So anyone who thinks they know precisely *when* “the end” of the age will come, is, invariably, going to be incorrect.

  • Bruce427

    ** Hagerty says, “Right now, you hear murmurings in a lot of very conservative Christian groups that we are in the end times.” **

    I believe the reason for this is, Scripture tells us: “For the time will come when they ["professing" Christians] will not endure sound doctrine; but [running] after their own lusts they shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth [of God's Word].” (The Apostle Paul, 2nd. Timothy 4:3-4 KJV).

    When “Conservative” Christians (read: those who do not equivocate on the moral teachings of Scripture) look around at what is happening in the Episcopal church, some Presbyterian groups, some Lutheran groups, and some Methodist groups, they believe they are witnessing the unfolding of what the Apostle Paul was warning about. So…they believe we are living in the “end times.” But as I posted earlier, Scripture does not tell us precisely when the end of “the end times” will be and no mortal person knows for certain (irrespective of what they may say). Scripture simply tells us the second appearance of Christ will come “like a thief in the night” and warns us to be vigilant regarding the times and live a life such as to be ready (at any time).

  • varados

    The overarching message of this article, uninteded, no doubt, is the shocking admission that the intrinsic tone of the piece is constructed in such a way that nothing about the questions advanced, or the answeres provided, will cause offence to any listener, or, at least, most listeners to the piece. It is the helpless concession that bromides pass for serious thought; that the feelings of a faceless, nameless listener drive the very foundation of a story. Ms. Hagerty may be a professional. The question is: in what?