As part of the Press Freedom in Canada conference held last week at Ryerson University, Tony Burman gave a luncheon address on his experience working for Al Jazeera English, the importance of war reporting and its implications for freedom of the press. Rhiannon Russell was there, and reports on Burman's speech. 


Who could say no to lunch with Tony Burman?

Last week, journalists, students, and professors gathered in downtown Toronto, steps away from Ryerson University, to eat, drink, and listen to Burman, former managing director of Al Jazeera English and head of CBC, speak about the battle for press freedom in the Middle East.

The luncheon was part of Ryerson’s Press Freedom in Canada conference, a two-day event with a series of panels focusing on the different angles of media freedom.

Burman, in black pants, a black jacket, and a white collared shirt, took to the podium as dessert was served. (Dessert with Tony Burman? Even better.)

Burman worked for Al Jazeera English for four years, three of them in Qatar, where the network was born, and one in Washington.

He talked about Al Jazeera’s role in the Arab Spring, one that placed importance on citizen content and social media to cover the uprising in modern, 21st-century ways.

But Burman clarified. “This was not a Twitter revolution, this was not a Facebook revolution, and it was certainly not an Al Jazeera revolution … but the media played a critical role.”

Al Jazeera appealed for this kind of content, and Burman said they received thousands of submissions. The question was: How would they go about verifying these images?

“There is no manual for that. This is literally learning on the fly,” Burman said. Al Jazeera staff split into teams, double and triple sourcing submissions. There were minimal errors, he said. “The track record was phenomenal.”

In fact, because Al Jazeera was so far ahead of other networks’ coverage, it made the decision not to rush anything to air. Burman said they took hours, even a whole day, to verify the information they received from citizens.

This mentality stands in stark contrast to most television media in North America, for which speed is the goal and accuracy is sometimes sacrificed.

Yes, Burman said, citizen journalists’ content needs to be fact-checked before it’s published or broadcast, in case, for instance, someone tries to pass off a photo of Baghdad as a Cairo neighbourhood. (This happened “a few times.”)  

Should journalists be concerned about nonprofessionals taking over their roles? Burman doesn’t think so. “It isn’t an either or,” he said. “[Citizens] won’t displace journalists, but I think it’s a question of partnership.”

Despite this, he said only about one quarter of the images Al Jazeera used during the Arab Spring were from professional journalists.

Turning to press freedom, Burman said that here in Canada, we don’t have the same threats to expression as media do elsewhere. (He recalled a hallway at the Al Jazeera office that was lined with photographs of journalists who’d been imprisoned, assaulted, threatened, and killed for their work. “It’s an important kind of wall of honour for Al Jazeera,” he said.)

He stressed the importance of international coverage. “Understanding other cultures is a prerequisite for understanding your own,” he said, noting that foreign bureaus are shrinking and this kind of coverage is at risk.

“More than ever, we need to devote more human and financial resources to cover the world,” Burman said. “I realize budgets are tightening…but it’s not only a matter of money. It’s a matter of choice.”

Burman wrapped with an ode to the journalists killed recently in Syria, where the Assad regime seems to be targeting the media. Marie Colvin, a veteran war reporter for The Sunday Times, was one of the most recent and high-profile casualties.

He quoted a speech Colvin made in 2010 on the importance of war reporting:

“In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same – someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.”

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