Tony Burman gestures to the projector screen to his left, and it floods with riot footage from the Egyptian revolt against former president Hosni Mubarak. Al Jazeera’s cameras captured scenes that make Toronto’s G20 look like a playground squabble: mobs trying to topple a police van into the Nile, civilians shot while carrying bodies out of the mob’s warpath, ecstatic crowds in Tahrir Square when Mubarak announced his resignation.
Burman, the former head of Al Jazeera English and, before that, CBC News, presented a lecture titled “News Over Noise in the Age of Al Jazeera” as a part of Ryerson’s International Issues discussion series on January 18. Speaking without a microphone, Burman captivated the hall full of students and faculty, recounting memories of working as a broadcast journalist in the Middle East. He contrasted highlights such as witnessing Nelson Mandela being freed from prison with low points, like the ramifications of the American government turning on Al Jazeera during the war on Iraq. Burman stands firmly opposed to the superficial coverage of Eastern affairs generated by most of the American media outlets, and says his goal is to help his audience understand the whole story, not just a slice.
Since its 2006 launch, the English branch of the news network has given a voice to the voiceless in a part of the world where the media are predominantly comprised of what Burman calls “state-run propaganda machines.” The Al Jazeera effect has confirmed Burman’s belief that fair and fearless media have the power to trigger global change.
He closes the lecture with the story of Birhan Woldu, the starving three-year-old his CBC documentary crew stumbled upon in 1984. They were told Birhan only had about 15 minutes to live, and her father had started to dig her a grave. But as he was about to lay her in the dirt, Birhan’s father noticed a faint pulse. She made a miraculous recovery, and her story made her the face of the Ethiopian famine. CBC’s documentary struck its audience in a way that much of the famine coverage had failed to do, sparking a flurry of aid and donations from around the world. What I took away from the lecture is that there is enormous power in good journalism, and scraping the surface of an issue simply isn’t enough to ignite the public and incite change.“Birhan remembers that, and so should we,” says Burman.
Lead image via Matthew Wright