Diversity in media and the impact on complex stories from Charlie Hebdo to the Ebola outbreak
By Dana Wagner
An interview with Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, who now teaches at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. While Managing Director of Al Jazeera’s English news channel in Qatar from 2008-2010, its worldwide reach more than doubled to 220 million households. Burman led the campaign that brought Al Jazeera to Canada in 2009 and expanded it throughout the United States. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What did the entrance of Al Jazeera English mean to the North American market?
One of the great frustrations of the North American market for a lot of people is the narrowness of its news media. That in spite of the fact there seems to be many different companies and broadcasters and new organizations, there really isn’t a diversity of perspective or diversity of views, and that reveals itself in a variety of ways. The portrait of the world that one gets living in Canada or the United States is a very limited one. And it’s made even more limited in recent years because of the cut-back of journalists who work abroad and foreign bureaus being reduced because of budget cuts. The multicultural nature of Canada and of North America in general means that this narrowness of its media is frustrating because there are a lot of Canadians who have not only ties beyond the Canadian border with countries and cultures but also a real interest in what’s going on. So I think it’s an impoverished media market. In that sense, Al Jazeera’s intent (and to a great extent its achieving its intent) was to bring to the North American media marketplace a much wider range of perspectives, a determination to cover all of the world and not just narrow parts of it, European capitals, that kind of thing, and to turn the lights on parts particularly of the developing world and of the global south that really have not been on effectively at all in North America.
Can you talk about what gets missed by media without a global perspective?
The pressures and the complexities and the fascination and the richness of cultures, particularly in the developing world, are not something that is easily captured or reflected in North American media. Whether it’s our attempt to understand the world of Islam, the Arab world, Asia, I think that we, particularly those people here in North America who rely on the Western media to get some sense of what’s going on, that we are truly impoverished in our understanding. So on a lot of major international policy issues, you’ve got a relatively uninformed population in Canada and the US and that often leads to misguided and wrong decision-making on the part of the political elites that rule this continent. In that sense the failure to properly convey the reality of the world beyond our borders is a real impediment in terms of wise, insightful public policy.
What is the impact of having media outlets with offices primarily in Western cities cover a story like the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo?
The Charlie Hebdo affair was largely reported in North America as an issue of free expression. And that’s a concept and a debate that a lot of people can relate to – I think most of us, virtually all of us, are committed to the principles of free expression. If you live in France and certainly if you’re a Muslim, and if you live in many parts of the developing world, the issue of Charlie Hebdo was more than simply an issue of free expression. It was an issue of how cultures interact with each other, it was how cultures and religions are portrayed in the media. To what extent is there free license given to certain media organizations to do things and to say things and portray things that are deeply offensive to other people, in a way that would never be tolerated if the reverse was done?
When I was with the CBC, we did not re-publish the so-called Danish cartoons. The violent protests that occurred in the Middle East were largely in response to the fact that many European magazines re-published those cartoons including Charlie Hebdo. In fact that was probably for a lot of people the first time they had heard of Charlie Hebdo outside of France. At the CBC we took a contrary position, which is that we would never [publish the cartoons]. We covered the story and you can easily cover the story [describing] how the cartoons are, what they consist of, but the actual re-publication of the cartoons themselves would be as offensive to Muslims as if, if one flipped it totally, there was an incident of outrageous, obscene anti-Semitism that involved some group or some magazine. And we would never, nor would any publication in North America, consider re-publishing the examples of that anti-Semitism because it’s totally unnecessary.
That nuance that really gets to the heart of how one religious or cultural group sees another was kind of lost in the debate here. It was more or less framed in many news organizations as a free expression issue and why wouldn’t the Muslims of France basically just tolerate whatever Charlie Hebdo did? I think that kind of limited view of what was an incredibly complicated issue is an example of how the lack of diversity defines the message in a way that is often very misleading.
What does it means to have diversity in the news room and have editorial decisions influenced by diversity?
A starting point for any news organization is that you try to build trust and credibility with your audience and a first principle in doing that is you must know who your audience is. And your publication or your television or radio network should reflect the realities that your audiences deal with. In a multicultural world, and certainly in a country like Canada, that means you can’t narrowly portray just a very limited slice of your society. If you look at a society that has a lot of immigrants, a society that is not simply one religion, then to establish trust and credibility with your audience you’ve got to make sure that the decision-makers in your newsroom are reflective of the diversity of that audience. That involves bringing into your decision-making team a lot of people and backgrounds and experiences that aren’t necessarily conventionally found in newsrooms.
How do you do that?
You do it through strategic, aggressive policies. There’s been a real effort to do [this], to make sure that your hiring processes reach out to a wide variety of potential applicants, that you make sure that the people choosing who wins these hiring competitions are sensitive to the need to have newsroom staff be more broadly diverse. And you’ve got to do it strategically and statistically. What often sets back news organizations are budget cutbacks. As the hammer comes down and as staff are laid off, often it’s ‘last in, first out.’ The people who are laid off are the youngest people hired, the more recent people hired, and many of those come from the particular population groups that you want to bring in.
But if you take a snapshot of a news room today, compared to 10 years ago, compared to 30 years ago, it would be quite evident to you that the colour and the gender and the backgrounds and perspectives of that group, in most cases – in organizations that have been sensitive to this challenge – are different. What is easy to argue is that the pace of change in this area is happening at a far slower rate than it should. Most new organizations are still behind the curve, particularly as our populations diversify more and more through immigration.
If you were trying to make the case to an editor in chief, what would you say?
The key message is that it is fundamental to your survival as a news organization to better reflect your audience. The narrowness of hiring, the narrowness of coverage, the failure to broaden the lens to include everyone around you, will ultimately lead to your extinction or will persuade a potential audience to go elsewhere. When people look at newspapers and look at magazines and watch television and listen to radio, they want to see themselves reflected. They want to see their concerns reflected. I think that impatience is building. The reality of 2015 compared to 10 or 20 years ago is that there are many alternatives now, thanks to the internet, thanks to the web, thanks to a whole kind of expansion of news sources. So if conventional organizations fail to reflect their audiences, then their audiences will just go elsewhere. And that’s a pretty persuasive argument to make to somebody in charge of a magazine or a newspaper or a network who really wants to grow and wants to survive.
If there is a lesson from Al Jazeera [it’s] that your content improves immeasurably as your diversity increases, and I think audiences respond to that. It’s a very successful formula, to broaden the diversity of your staff and to ensure that that broadening affects your decision-making so that your lens is at a far wider position than it was before. And then the audience comes. Our experience was that a lot of people to this day appreciate Al Jazeera English, they don’t really care about its Arabic roots or its funding nature, what they see is a news organization that has more bureaus internationally than any other network in the world including the BBC and CNN. You turn it on, and within a one-hour period you’ll get coverage from countries that you never, ever see on North American networks. That kind of a range of coverage that produces a range of perspectives and stories is appreciated by a lot of people and that is probably its ticket to success.
We spoke about Charlie Hebdo, but can you give another example of how diversity around the table when making an editorial decision or covering a story quite clearly enhanced content?
One example of where this was really evident was the coverage of Ebola in West Africa. Because Al Jazeera’s commitment is to be a voice for the voiceless and also to give expression to the global south, I think they quickly identified that story within Africa, particularly within Western Africa, as being a very central one. What you found on Al Jazeera was a kind of richness of coverage about the three or four or five countries that were central to that issue. Whereas in North America, the Ebola story seemed to be reduced to whether it will come here. In other words, however remote and unlikely that was, and is, the focus was: What can you do if all of a sudden you walk the streets of Toronto or New York or Washington and come face to face with the Ebola outbreak? Which is an absurd way to frame that story. I mean the story really is an incredibly tragic human health crisis in a very important part of Africa. It’s an African story. It’s a story of the developing world. It’s also an issue of to what extent do we, outside of the developing world, have an obligation to help?
That complexity was reflected in the coverage of the Ebola story on Al Jazeera. Again if you saw that story covered here, it was largely brought home as if it was a local health issue – whether or not you’re going to stumble upon Ebola – which is a ludicrous and uninformed approach. There’s a feeling within Al Jazeera that more coverage is better coverage most of the time, and by providing a considerable airtime to these complex stories then you avoid the pitfall of many North American news organizations, certainly television networks, in reducing incredibly complex stories to neat little news packages that often serve only to distort rather than inform.