5Q+1: CNN Godbeat pro on his remarkable Lampedusa story

When one of the best religion journalists on the planet produces one of the most gratifying stories of his life, news consumers are in for a real treat.

Enter Eric Marrapodi, co-editor of CNN’s Belief Blog.

His 4,500-word  “Stepping-stones to Safety” story — featuring a family fleeing Syria’s war — ran over the weekend.

The gripping lede:

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) – Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.

Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.

He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.

Abdel prayed for safety. He hoped land would come soon. He worried his wife, 8 1/2 months pregnant, might give birth before they reached land.

Abdel and his family risked their lives to flee Syria for Italy.

Marrapodi agreed to respond to a few questions from GetReligion about his extraordinary report.  (If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to do so now. We’ll still be here when you get back.)

What’s the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about, and how long did it take to report, write and edit it?

I’d been hearing about Lampedusa and the refugees there for a long time. After Pope Francis made it his first visit outside of Rome, I knew I had to get over there. I was fortunate to be part of an extraordinary group of journalists who won Henry Luce Foundation grants for international religion reporting through the International Center for Journalists. ICFJ connected me with another grant winner, the wonderful Elisa Di Benedetto, who is an Italian journalist.

We met in Rome and flew to Lampedusa and Catania. We were on the two islands for a week total at the end of September. Because it was more of an evergreen story, we worked on the writing and the editing for months to get it right. We also had a lot of fact checking and following up to do.

It was a real challenge and a real joy to report.

Tell me about your travel experience. How big a journalistic adventure did you enjoy?

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Toasting the Godbeat

Last night the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Eric Marrapodi, manager of CNN’s Belief Blog, with its first Vine & Fig Tree Journalist Award. I had the pleasure of attending and had an absolutely fantastic time and enjoyed meeting or seeing again many folks on the Godbeat.

I hadn’t really thought about what the evening would be like going in so I was pleasantly surprised at what a celebration of religion reporting it was. It’s really unusual to have even a small portion of a day set aside to honor good work or reflect on the importance of religion reporting.

Becket Fund President William P. Mumma got things going by talking about the Becket Fund, which fights for religious liberty on behalf of believers and non-believers alike. I wasn’t recording what he said but I was touched by his discussion of how difficult it is to cover religion, pointing out that believers are particular about their doctrines and that it can be difficult to navigate the conflict between religious adherents. He said he admired those who did it well. He noted that religion and the press are linked by a desire to find truth — a rather important point that I think we neglect. I recently read an essay about how the United States’ emphasis on a free press is actually rooted — from the infamous Zenger trial on — in a particular understanding of the importance of voluntarily seeking religious truth.

Sally Quinn toasted Marrapodi with a nice speech about how every story is about religion and how CNN’s BeliefBlog has done a great job showing that.

But it was Marrapodi’s speech that was the best. He joked about how he grew up freelance Protestant (which, he said, just meant that they went to a lot of different churches). When he was younger, he was utterly convinced that the media were biased against believers. Once he got into actual journalism work, he came to realize it wasn’t bias so much as ignorance. As he matured, he realized he was also ignorant of some things, which motivated him to study religion at Georgetown. He thanked his bosses who let him leave work early to take advantage of Lilly religion grant-funded courses at Georgetown. For three years!

Marrapodi talked about CNN’s Belief Blog and how he started it, giving props to fellow founder Dan Gilgoff. He joked about the site’s “broccoli and ice cream” approach — a balance of light and substantive stories. “You’ve got to keep the lights on folks!” he said. “This is a business!” The site has been wildly successful, with some 90 million hits in its first year. And I think he said the site had some 250 million hits at this point. Marrapodi said that there is a great audience for good, honest reporting on religion — and no religion.

It was all lovely. Marrapodi is a gracious award winner (and a great guy). And the night was a fun celebration of religion reporting. Congratulations to Marrapodi and to all who cover religion news well.

Should CNN editor accept religious liberty award?

A Religion Dispatches blog post this week noted that CNN Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi will receive the first annual Vine & Fig Tree Award for excellence in reporting on religious liberty issues.

The post questioned whether Marrapodi (an often-praised journalist here at GetReligion) should accept the award from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty:

According to Time Warner’s Standards of Business Conduct (CNN is a Time Warner subsidiary), employees are to avoid conflicts of interest. While they do not address the particulars of journalists being honored by an advocacy group, The New York Times’ “Policy on Ethics in Journalism,” for example, offers clear guidelines for such circumstances: “Staff members may not enter local, national or international competitions sponsored by individuals or groups who have a direct interest in the tenor of our coverage.”

Any number of advocacy groups, of course, present journalism awards, from the Amy Foundation to the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association.

The question of whether Marrapodi should accept the award sparked some Twitter responses — some humorous, some serious — from fellow religion writers.

Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post said:

It depends, does he get a huge amount of money? #kidding

That actually is a good question. Based on my reading of the award news release, I don’t see that the honor carries a cash prize.

Bob Smietana of (for a little while longer, anyway) The Tennessean chimed in:

Becket is not primarily an anti gay rights group as that report claims

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service said:

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Inside the History Channel’s epic TV miniseries ‘The Bible’

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This is one of those GetReligion follow-up posts where we basically say, “See, was that so hard?”

Back in December, I raised a few questions about media coverage of “The Bible,” the epic miniseries that debuted Sunday night on the History Channel.

In reading an in-depth feature by CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi over the weekend, I was pleased to see my questions answered. Obviously, Marripodi pays close attention to the excellent insight at GetReligion. Or maybe he’s just good at his job …

Kidding aside, let’s start at the top of the CNN piece:

(CNN) - Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Job” and “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.

But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.

My bad.

Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of “The Bible” - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.

My previous post complained about the lack of specific details concerning Burnett’s faith background and the motivation for the project.

Enter Marrapodi:

Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Wait, there’s more:

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#RNA2012: Outside a Mormon temple wedding

In a couple of recent posts — here and here — I’ve already highlighted some of the excellent Godbeat journalism that claimed prizes in the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual awards contest.

If you haven’t checked out the winning entries, I’d encourage you to do so. For regular readers of GetReligion, many of the honorees’ names will read like a who’s who in religion news. Among those names: Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi of CNN’s Belief Blog, David Gibson of Religion News Service and Tom Breen (formerly) of The Associated Press.

Another familiar name from the Godbeat: Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune. 

This past weekend, Stack was busy covering the 182nd annual LDS General Conference, so she didn’t actually make it to the RNA annual conference in Bethesda, Md., just outside the nation’s capital. But she was recognized as the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year, which honors religion writers for the nation’s mid-sized newspapers.

Stack produced a truly fascinating story on Mormon weddings dividing families when some loved ones are forced to wait outside the temple. The top of the story, which I missed when it was published in June 2011:

You see them on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square nearly every day. They pace nervously or stroll aimlessly, staring down at the tulips or up at the spires.

They are nottourists or templegoers. They are parents, siblings, cousins and friends of Mormon couples being wed inside the LDS sanctuary. But, for one reason or another, they are not allowed to view the ceremony.

Maybe they are Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish or atheist. Perhaps they once were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or maybe they are current Mormons who fail to meet all the faith’s belief and behavior standards for a “recommend” to enter into the temple.

Stack demonstrates her expertise on Mormonism with a story that provides theological insight and historical background. At the same time, she writes in a way that makes sense even to a reader not as well versed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She quotes a variety of sources, from church spokesmen to those who have married inside the temple — without certain key relatives joining them.

Moreover, Stack places the weddings in the context of a changing society:

Part of the problem has emerged in recent years as society has moved weddings from the sacred to the secular, says Brigham Young University sociologist Marie Cornwall. Marriage was once a church-centered celebration, given that most people’s religious and secular communities were the same. Now they
aren’t.

Many of today’s weddings no longer are seen as a holy event before God and witnesses, she says, but rather as a chance to bring everyone together to celebrate the newlyweds.

“Everyone now has relatives who are not religious,” she says. “So weddings have become more and more part of the market. Couples are spending huge amounts of money for celebrations to include all their friends.”

When I clicked the link to Stack’s winning entry, I couldn’t stop reading, which is always a good sign.

Congratulations to Stack and the rest of the RNA winners!


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