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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