Tony Burman on social media’s role in the news

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Veteran journalist Tony Burman discusses how social media can help communicate stories.
Veteran journalist Tony Burman discusses how social media can help communicate stories.

Often, when we discuss how the Internet and social media have changed journalism, we focus on the negative. About how the democratization of the tools of reporting and photography are destroying the profession, about how people can select particular news outlets that agree with their perspective.

Too often we overlook the remarkable ability of social media to improve how the news is created and delivered. Tony Burman, formerly the head of Al-Jazeera English and, prior to that, CBC News, spoke with Ramona about these positive effects in the context of the Arab Spring in 2011.

“Black and white is very easy to portray, and yet most of us are knowledgeable enough and sophisticated enough to realize that the nuance and the truth, to the extent that there is any truth, lies between the polarities,” he said.

“So I think in that sense, social media has enabled all of us who work in the mainstream media who now work in so-called multi-platform news organizations to better reflect the diversity of issues and the broad multitude of opinions on so many issues.”

The journalist’s ability to acquire sources and voices for their stories is widely expanded through social media, as was clearly demonstrated by the Arab Spring.

“Al-Jazeera journalists were prevented from actually getting to the story and covering the story because they were so politically-targeted by the dictatorships in the Arab world,” said Burman. “(So) what Al-Jazeera had to do is rely on a lot of so-called ‘ordinary people’ who had cell phones, who had computers, who had their eyes, and who had a real energy and enthusiasm to get the word out.”

So for all the damage social media may have done to the financial viability of some media professions – just ask the former Chicago Sun-Times photographers – it has created the opportunity for “better” journalism.

Enough so, that Burman is a rare optimist in the industry. “I would feel as optimistic, as excited about what’s ahead, as I did when I was in university, about to become a journalist.”

Watch part 1 and part 2 of Tony’s interview, “Covering the Uncoverable.”

See also: Jeff Howe and Jesse Hirsh on citizen journalists


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