Tony Burman: [Full interview transcript] Part 1

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In his 35-year career, award-winning journalist Tony Burman has served as the managing director of Al Jazeera English and editor-in-chief of CBC News. He is now a research chair at Ryerson University. Read Tony’s full bio here…

Click here to watch Tony’s interview, “Covering the Uncoverable: Social Media in the Arab Spring,” part 1.

Tony: My name is Tony Burman. I’m the former head of Al Jazeera English for the last three years. Prior to that, for a long time I was with the CBC, head of news and current affairs for about seven years at the CBC.

Ramona: What have you come away from this year with? How is emerging technology changing news?

Tony: Well the last couple of years at Al Jazeera were far more groundbreaking than, for example, my years at the CBC were, simply because of the development in social media, and also the unique eruption of the revolutions in the Arab world, which I think came together in a very unique way. I’m trying to better understand how we here in Canada and North America in general interact with social media and how social media are having an impact on how traditional journalism is evolving.

All sides of the story

Tony: I’ve always believed that, in any reality, there are a diversity of perspectives and diversity of voices, and that there’s not any single one. And a journalist who tries to be an eyewitness to an event, has got to be humble enough to realize that his or her perspective is limited by the eyes that they have, and limited by their own experiences, so they must be dependent on other voices and other perspectives, to provide their audiences with a fuller, more comprehensive, dare I say truer, reflection of what that reality is.

I think that a lot of us, over the years, particularly in broadcast journalism, in television, that too many stories and too many issues are reduced to an either/or, to polarities. A lot of that is an outcome of the brevity of television, where you can’t really deal with too much grey between the black and white. 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. 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.

Ramona: The other issue that’s arising is this idea of a filter bubble, that we have social media so we’re only getting the news that we already want to hear, or the perspective that we already agree with.

Tony: One of the advantages of social media, and one of the advantages of being open to a diversity of media sources is that you’re able, proactively, to seek out and to experience other perspectives. I think that there is a fear, on the part of a lot of people, that people aren’t doing that. That they’re essentially discovering what their comfort zone is on a particular issue, or a particular perspective, and then settling down and communicating or interacting solely with that. At the end of the day, we as individuals have got to choose what we choose to choose, and if we want to remain in our little bubble, we’re allowed, democratically to [do so]. I think it’s a sad thing, but I think, as the world becomes more and more complicated and, if not frightening, certainly threatening in terms of a lot of things that are kind of emerging, that will encourage and stimulate people to get outside their comfort zone.

Who is the “new” newsmaker?

Tony: There should be a partnership between professionally-trained journalists who work in mainstream news organizations and the incredibly important social media activists who are out there providing them material. I think Al Jazeera’s experience in the so-called Arab Spring, where 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, 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.

Ramona: What are the lessons a North American news organization could take away from that?

Tony: Well I guess there are two lessons. Number one, that social media is not an outlet for ranting, should not solely be an outlet for commercially-driven initiatives, is not solely an outlet for entertainment and celebrity news and distraction. Social media, I think, used by people who are engaged in their society is a tool to better understand how that society works.

A second lesson, on the part of the mainstream news organization, is that they should interact with these forces in a respectful, humble way. From the time that journalism was created, it was always dependent on eyewitnesses. In other words, journalists, for all of their ego issues, never have the temerity to assume they could be everywhere at all times, so they always relied on eyewitnesses as part of their stories, beginning in print and expanding into broadcast media. So in that sense, social media users, whether they’re bloggers or activists or simply individuals with cell phones, are eyewitnesses. So the issue is not, “should you tap into it?” Of course you can, you have been for the past 2,000 years in one way or another. The question is how do you do it? How do you do it in a way that you’re not manipulated, in a way that you can double-source and double-check that information, that perhaps is suspect, and that’s really a process issue.


  • Social media is changing journalism, particularly after the citizen journalism that took place during the Arab Spring 
  • Social media is helping reflect the diversity of voices and opinions in journalism
  • Social media can be a tool to better understand and engage with society
  • Journalists should interact with social media in a respectful and humble way

Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyBurman.


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