August 26, 2007

The defiant idealist

An interview with…



WTVJ-Channel 6

“I got into television news to make the world a better place,” Jeff Burnside says. “I know that sounds preposterously idealistic.”

He adds, “But I don't apologize one bit.”

For two decades, Burnside has been a defiant idealist in a pessimistic industry. In an era of quick-and-dirty, slash-and-burn coverage, he’s won numerous journalism awards, both regional and national
, for his long-form and investigative stories.

“I’ve exposed cults, puppy mills, government wrongdoing, corporate malfeasance, polluters, and jerks,” he says proudly. “I especially like to force a public figure who is trying to avoid accountability to answer the public's questions.”

A career highlight?

I was the first, I believe, to expose the U.S. Navy's damage to marine mammals through powerful sonar. It's since become a heated battle between the white house and environmental groups.

Any weird/awful dues-paying stories?

I've had my nose broken twice, been pistol-whipped, and nearly crashed in a helicopter. I’ve also been tackled by Ted Bundy's brother. Then there’s every hot summer afternoon in South Florida, wearing a suit and slamming a story together in a rickety live van with lousy air conditioning.

How competitive is South Florida as a broadcast news market?

Very competitive – in a bad way. It's perhaps the most sensational market in America. Each station seems to want to be more sensational than the other. Lots of key demographic viewers (rich, loyal, smart) crave quality. Why not go after them instead of the viewers everyone else is fighting over?

Can’t competition can be a good thing?

If you keep your standards. Your competitive spirit should push you to excellence, not make you sensationalize. It's a fine line when you're out in the field, trying to make your story more compelling than the other guy. Your boss may like your story if you scream and shout. But if you keep your standards instead, in the long run, your viewers will like you even more – and that, in turn, will make your boss like you a whole lot.

Can that really happen?

The optimist in me believes that smart news managers pop up every now and then – those who understand the simple adage that doing compelling journalism attracts viewers, especially the kind that managers crave: smart, loyal, and rich.

Viewers vote for good journalism when they watch good journalism and tell their friends. If they turn off the television altogether, managers must descend to scramble for those viewers who are left. Conversely, viewers who watch crap are voting for more of it.

Do print journalists appreciate what you do?

Oddly, in this visible business, reporters get very little feedback. But I think many of them are glad to see someone doing investigative journalism. I've been treated well by my colleagues and I appreciate their support. It means a lot to me.

I think print reporters scoff at most TV reporters – and for good reason. But some of the print guys gradually come around to acknowledging the broadcast reporters who have been doing good work for many years, regardless of whether they are investigative or daily.

Do other daily TV reporters think investigative journalism is worthless? Or are they jealous?

If they thought investigative reporters were worthless, they probably wouldn't tell me. Jealousy? I doubt it. They might think, "If I had two weeks, I could do a great report, too." But that kind of thinking shows naivety.

What’s wrong with sensationalist TV reporters?

Everything. When I see them at a news conference or the scene of a news event, I cringe inside. How can they be so sleazy? How can they put themselves above the story? They got into this business for the wrong reason, and they make it harder for those quality reporters to maintain the integrity of the profession.

If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students and young professionals, what would it be?

Stop acting like a TV reporter.

Most rookie reporters need to learn how to talk to the viewer. Just talk normally, but with more volume and projection. When your volume goes up, don't let your pitch go up, too – that's how you get whiny reporters.

You should act like you know what you're talking about – because, in fact, you should know what you're talking about.

Anything else?

1. Don't force yourself into your story just to be on TV. Stand-ups can serve a real purpose, but they don't exist just so your mom can see you on the tube.

2. Read All The President's Men and watch Good Night And Good Luck. Then you'll get it.