John Burnett

As a roving NPR correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett's beat stretches across the U.S., and, sometimes, around the world. Currently, he is serving as NPR's Religion correspondent.

In December 2012, he returned from a five-month posting in Nairobi as the East Africa Correspondent. Normally, he focuses on the issues and people of the Southwest United States, providing investigative reports and traveling the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. His special reporting projects have included New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, and many reports on the Drug War in the Americas. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition.

Burnett has reported from more than 30 different countries since 1986. His 2008 four-part series "Dirty Money," which examined how law enforcement agencies have gotten hooked on and, in some cases, corrupted by seized drug money, won three national awards: a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Investigative Reporting, a Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting and an Edward R. Murrow Award for the accompanying website. His 2007 three-part series "The Forgotten War," which took a critical look at the nation's 30-year war on drugs, won a Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for Excellence in Reporting on Drug and Alcohol Problems.

In 2006, Burnett's Uncivilized Beasts & Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent was published by Rodale Press. In that year, he also served as a 2006 Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In 2004, Burnett won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for investigative reporting for his story on the accidental U.S. bombing of an Iraqi village. In 2003, he was an embedded reporter with the First Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq. His work was singled out by judges for the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award honoring the network's overall coverage of the Iraq War. Also in 2003, Burnett won a first place National Headliner Award for investigative reporting about corruption among federal immigration agents on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, Burnett reported from New York City, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His reporting contributed to coverage that won the Overseas Press Club Award and an Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award.

In 2001, Burnett reported and produced a one-hour documentary, "The Oil Century," for KUT-FM in Austin, which won a silver prize at the New York Festivals. He was a visiting faculty member in broadcast journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in 2002 and 1997. He received a Ford Foundation Grant in 1997 for a special series on sustainable development in Latin America.

Burnett's favorite stories are those that reveal a hidden reality. He recalls happening upon Carlos Garcia, a Mexico City street musician who plays a musical leaf, a chance encounter that brought a rare and beautiful art form to a national audience. In reporting his series "Fraud Down on the Farm," Burnett spent nine months investigating the abuse of the United States crop insurance system and shining light on surprising stories of criminality.

Abroad, his report on the accidental U.S. Air Force bombing of the Iraqi village of Al-Taniya, an event that claimed 31 lives, helped listeners understand the fog of war. His "Cocaine Republics" series detailed the emergence of Central America as a major drug smuggling region. But listeners may say that one of his best remembered reports is an audio postcard he filed while on assignment in Peshawar, Pakistan, about being at six-foot-seven the "tallest American at a Death to America" rally.

Prior to coming to NPR, Burnett was based in Guatemala City for United Press International covering the Central America civil wars. From 1979-1983, he was a general assignment reporter for various Texas newspapers.

Burnett graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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12:56am

Thu November 7, 2013
Ecstatic Voices

Across America, Voices Rise To Reinvent India

Originally published on Thu November 7, 2013 2:20 pm

Kanniks with the choir at St. Johns Unitarian Church in Cincinnati in 2004.
Courtesy of Kanniks Kannikeswaran

When I visit Kanniks Kannikeswaran on a weekday evening, he is warming up his choir in the meeting room of a civic center in suburban Cincinnati.

"Breathe in the cosmic energy," he says to the choir. The response is a collective "Ommmmmm ..."

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2:25am

Sun November 3, 2013
The Salt

To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer

Originally published on Mon November 4, 2013 3:40 pm

Todd Fadel, at piano, leads singers at a recent gathering of Beer & Hymns at First Christian Church Portland.
John Burnett NPR

With mainline religious congregations dwindling across America, a scattering of churches is trying to attract new members by creating a different sort of Christian community. They are gathering around craft beer.

Some church groups are brewing it themselves, while others are bring the Holy Mysteries to a taproom. The result is not sloshed congregants; rather, it's an exploratory approach to do church differently.

Leah Stanfield stands at a microphone across the room from the beer taps and reads this evening's gospel message.

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2:43pm

Fri October 18, 2013
Around the Nation

Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 8:09 pm

Pastor Jamie Coots holds a snake at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church of Middlesboro, Ky.
NGO

Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal?

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4:15am

Tue October 15, 2013
Ecstatic Voices

Before Churches Had Songbooks, There Was 'Lined-Out' Gospel

Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 8:12 am

Church elder Elwood Cornett preaches at a recent reunion of Old Regular Baptists. Brother Don Pratt is seated behind him in a blue shirt and tie.
Cindy Johnston NPR

Deep in the hills of Appalachia, there's a mournful, beautiful style of church music that hasn't changed since the 18th century.

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3:24pm

Fri October 4, 2013
Religion

Snake-Handling Preachers Open Up About 'Takin' Up Serpents'

Originally published on Fri October 4, 2013 3:35 pm

Andrew Hamblin preaches while holding a snake above his head, LaFollette, Tenn.
Ciaran Flannery NGT

Snake handlers dwell at the edge of the spiritual frontier — a community of people who are willing to die for their faith three times a week in church. Members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church take up venomous serpents to prove their faith in God. The practice is still widespread in Appalachia, though mostly hidden.

Pastor Jamie Coots warns about the scent in the snake room behind his house in Middlesboro, Ky.

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2:12pm

Mon September 2, 2013
Food

Deep-Fry Chefs Keep It Hot And Poppin' In Texas

Originally published on Mon September 2, 2013 5:11 pm

We had to do it! A fried mic.
John Burnett NPR

Every year, the State Fair of Texas awards the most original food that is battered and plunged into a vat of boiling oil.

And it gets weirder every year. The obvious choices came and went in previous competitions — concoctions such as fried ice cream, fried cookie dough and chicken-fried bacon. Now, every year, the same cooks have to top themselves, which is not easy.

Last year, Butch Benavides — a Mexican food restaurateur turned fry-master — won a trophy for his fried bacon cinnamon roll on a stick.

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3:04pm

Sun September 1, 2013
Religion

Cowboy Church: With Rodeo Arena, They 'Do Church Different'

Originally published on Sun September 1, 2013 6:36 pm

A Western motif greets visitors to the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, in Waxahachie, Texas. About 1,700 people attend the church on Sundays.
Matt Slocum AP

It's Sunday morning at the Cowboy Church of Santa Fe County, N.M. You know you're there because of the chuck wagon parked by the highway.

You couldn't find a more nonreligious-looking building. The church is a charmless metal warehouse on a concrete slab. Inside, the altar is decorated like a set from a 1950s western — complete with saddles, hats, boots, a lasso and wagon wheel.

The band has just kicked off with "I Think God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart," and about 30 people in folding chairs are tapping their feet.

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2:06pm

Tue August 13, 2013
Ecstatic Voices

Life As Prayer: The Singing Nuns Of Ann Arbor

Originally published on Tue August 13, 2013 4:31 pm

Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz (right), vicaress general and music director for Dominican Sisters of Mary. On the group's new album, she plays organ and composed three selections.
Courtesy of the artist

In the cloistered world of classical music recordings, there is great interest in choral music by Catholic nuns these days. In the past year, two separate albums by a group of monastic nuns shot to the top of the classical charts.

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1:46pm

Wed July 31, 2013
Religion

Should Military Chaplains Have To Believe In God?

Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 5:48 pm

There has been a recent push for humanist chaplains in the United States military. Around 13,000 active service members are atheist or agnostic. Here, U.S. Army soldiers bow their heads in prayer during Easter sunrise service at Camp Liberty in Iraq, in 2009.
Marko Drobnjakovic AP

The United States military chaplaincy program has a proud heritage that stretches all the way back to the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

"They are rabbis, ministers, imams and priests who serve our nation's heroes and their families as committed members of the U.S. Army," according to one video produced by the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.

But are they ready for an atheist chaplain?

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1:38pm

Mon July 15, 2013
Music News

Shout Bands Stir Up Tubular Fervor In Charlotte

Originally published on Fri August 2, 2013 11:42 am

Cedric Mangum (left) leads the shout band as a junior member looks on.
Daniel Coston for NPR

For the next year, NPR will take a musical journey across America, which is one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth. We want to discover and celebrate the many ways in which people make spiritual music — individually and collectively, inside and outside houses of worship.

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10:49pm

Fri July 12, 2013
News

Abortion Rights Activists Plan Challenge To Texas Measure

Originally published on Sat July 13, 2013 11:31 am

Abortion rights opponents, dressed in blue, and supporters, wearing orange, rally in the state Capitol rotunda Friday before the vote on a set of sweeping abortion restrictions.
Tamir Kalifa AP

In a major victory for the anti-abortion movement, the Texas state Senate passed a sweeping bill early Saturday that has become a flashpoint in the national abortion debate. Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it in short order.

But the fight is not over. Abortion rights supporters say that the new law attempts to overturn Roe vs. Wade in Texas, and that's why they plan to take their fight to the courts.

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8:47am

Mon July 8, 2013
Around the Nation

Why Catastrophic Airline Crashes Have Become More Survivable

Originally published on Mon July 8, 2013 11:06 am

National Transportation Safety Board officials handed out this photo of the burnt shell of Asiana Flight 214 during their first assessment of the crash. Two people died Saturday and scores more were injured.
AFP/Getty Images

The Boeing 777 that crash-landed in San Francisco has one of the best safety records in the industry. In addition to the plane's solid reputation, many other factors helped save lives in Saturday's crash — from fire-rescue training to aircraft design.

If you look at pictures of the gutted, charred fuselage of Flight 214, you'd wonder how anybody made it out alive. All but two of the 307 passengers and crew survived. Both people killed were teenage girls from China.

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3:44pm

Thu June 27, 2013
Around the Nation

Texas Gov. Calls Special Session, Reigniting Abortion Debate

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The battle over a new abortion bill in Texas will resume now that Governor Rick Perry has called a second special legislative session. It's scheduled to begin on Monday. This past Tuesday night, an audience far beyond Texas watched as a Democratic state senator filibustered an anti-abortion bill for 12 hours. When Republicans cut her off, spectators jeered and the chamber erupted in pandemonium.

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2:59pm

Thu April 25, 2013
Around the Nation

Controversy Brews Over Church's Hallucinogenic Tea Ritual

Originally published on Thu April 25, 2013 6:17 pm

Ayahuasca brew used in South and Central America.
Nha Flickr

A small church in Santa Fe, N.M., has grown up around a unique sacrament. Twice a month, the congregation meets in a ritualized setting to drink Brazilian huasca tea, which has psychoactive properties said to produce a trance-like state.

The Supreme Court confirmed the UDV church's right to exist in 2006. The church doesn't seek new members and prefers to keep a low profile. It did, however, agree for the first time to open up to a journalist.

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3:21am

Sat April 20, 2013
Around the Nation

Two Decades Later, Some Branch Davidians Still Believe

Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 3:15 pm

Flames engulf the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 20, 1993. A 51-day standoff at the compound ended in a fire and the deaths of about 80 sect members, including two dozen children.
Susan Weems AP

Twenty years ago, federal agents clashed with David Koresh's Branch Davidian community near Waco, Texas. The standoff ended with a raid and fire that killed some 80 people. It's remembered as one of the darkest chapters in American law enforcement history.

Two decades later, some of the Branch Davidians who survived the raid are still believers, while a new church group has moved onto the land.

The Raid

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10:22am

Thu April 18, 2013
U.S.

Search And Rescue Ongoing After Texas Plant Explosion

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're learning more about last night's fire in the Texas town of West. The fire started in a fertilizer plant, and a father in a vehicle nearby was taking video of the flames when the plant exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah. I can't hear.

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3:42pm

Fri March 29, 2013
Religion

Thousands Trek To New Mexico Chapel On Good Friday

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 11:09 am

Students playing the roles of Roman soldiers lead a man playing the role of Jesus during a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuary of Chimayo in New Mexico on Thursday.
Brian Snyder Reuters/Landov

Driving in northern New Mexico requires special caution on Good Friday. Tens of thousands of people — some walking all night — are converging on the village of Chimayo to pray inside a 200-year-old chapel before a carved wooden image of Jesus.

As it does every year, the highway department has put out portable toilets, orange barriers, and signs warning motorists of "Santuario walkers."

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1:29pm

Sun February 10, 2013
Religion

As Islam Grows, U.S. Imams In Short Supply

Originally published on Sun February 10, 2013 2:58 pm

Muslims pray during a special Eid ul-Fitr morning prayer at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 30, 2011, in Los Angeles.
Kevork Djansezian Getty Images

Islam in America is growing exponentially. From 2000 to 2010, the number of mosques in the United States jumped 74 percent.

Today, there are more than 2,100 American mosques but they have a challenge: There aren't enough imams, or spiritual leaders, to go around.

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12:46pm

Fri January 11, 2013
World

Juarez Priest Finds 'Hand Of God In The Midst Of Mayhem'

Originally published on Fri January 11, 2013 4:11 pm

Father Kevin Mullins' parish, the Comunidad Catolica de Corpus Christi near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is located at the epicenter of the country's drug cartel war. After years of violence, murders are down and the city's shuttered shops and cafes are beginning to reopen.
Christ Chavez For NPR

Father Kevin Mullins steers his old Chevy pickup up a steep road to a hilltop dominated by a large statue of the virgin. She has a commanding view of this troubled corner of Christendom.

Here, the states of Texas, New Mexico and and Chihuahua, Mexico, intersect amid barren hills freckled with ocotillo plants and greasewood.

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4:03pm

Wed December 19, 2012
Shootings In Newtown, Conn.

In Faith, Finding Answers To 'The Mystery Of Evil'

Originally published on Wed December 19, 2012 4:47 pm

People gather for a prayer vigil at St. Rose Church in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. In the aftermath of such tragedies, many people ask how a benevolent God and suffering can coexist.
Emmanuel Dunand Getty Images

When a human tragedy occurs on the scale of the Newtown shootings, clergy are invariably asked an ancient question: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does he allow such misfortunes?

There's even a word for reconciling this paradox: theodicy, or attempting to justify God's goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.

A World Both Beautiful And Shattered

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