Canadian media need to provide more foreign coverage, former Al Jazeera boss says



Canadian news organizations should provide more coverage of world events, says the Canadian journalist who led Al Jazeera’s English operations from 2008 to 2010.

“I realize budgets are tight, but it’s not just a question of money, it’s a question of choices,” Tony Burman told a sold-out luncheon organized as part of a conference on press freedom held at Ryerson University.

Burman cited the media frenzy surrounding the April 29, 2011 royal wedding – an event that drew an estimated 12,000 journalists – as an example of the misallocation of news resources.

Former head of Al Jazeera English Tony Burman gives a keynote address at a luncheon for the Press Freedom in Canada conference

Former head of Al Jazeera English Tony Burman gives a keynote address at a luncheon for the Press Freedom in Canada conference

“Yes, the dress was nice,” he observed wryly in his speech on March 8, 2012. But more Canadian reporters were assigned to the one-day event in London than were sent to cover the Arab Spring.

Burman, who brought Al Jazeera to Canada in 2009 and helped the network break into the United States, said news organizations need to widen the public’s “window on the world.” This is particularly important in a multicultural society like Canada, he said, where so many people have links to other parts of the globe.

“Understanding other countries is essential to truly understanding your own.”

Burman spoke from experience, having worked in 30 countries during a career that included seven years as editor-in-chief overseeing CBC’s radio, television and online operations.

In Canada, press freedom is about free speech, but in many parts of the world, it is a “life-and-death issue,” Burman said, recalling his first day at Al Jazeera’s high-security headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

The hallways, he said, were lined with photographs of Al Jazeera employees who were injured, imprisoned or killed. The images were a visible reminder of what people were risking to provide “a voice to the voiceless,” Burman told a hushed audience of more than 150 lawyers, academics, reporters and students.

Despite such risks, quality news coverage comes from “putting boots on the ground,” insisted Burman, who in 2009 was named the second most influential non-Arab in the Arab world by Arabian Business Magazine.

Al Jazeera’s operations, he noted, involve more than 400 journalists spread over more than 60 countries. To put these numbers in perspective, Burman cited figures from American networks where fewer than 100 foreign correspondents serve a population of more than 300 million people. The Al Jazeera English staff of approximately 1,000 people, he noted, is drawn from more than 50 nationalities and the diverse perspectives add to the strength of overall new coverage.

“[Al Jazeera] wants people to understand the full story, not just the narrow version,” said Burman, who now holds Ryerson’s Velma Rogers Graham research chair in news media and technology.

Burman pointed to observations by the late American war correspondent Marie Colvin as he reflected on his experiences.

Colvin, who was killed last month while on assignment in Syria, argued that journalists venture into chaos and assume significant risks because they believe their stories can make people care and can make a difference.

“If my experience in journalism has taught me anything,” Burman said, “it’s that we should heed her words.”

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