NPR Correspondent John Burnett speaks about experiences as international reporter


Guillermo Hernandez

Daily Texan alumnus and National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett is currently working on an assignment about religion in East Africa. 

Stuart Railey

John Burnett, UT graduate and National Public Radio’s roving correspondent based in Austin, exemplifies the meticulous journalistic style that has come to define NPR’s most popular programs. Even in an age where print media is in steady decline and celebrity-centric journalism takes precedence on TV networks, Burnett’s work as a reporter demonstrates that NPR is not only surviving the transition to the digital generation, but continuing to attract new listeners.

From the inundated streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, Burnett’s dynamic beat has brought him into contact with places all over the world for the last 27 years. For the past five months, the 6-foot-7-inch reporter has been working on an interim assignment based in Kenya.

“Right now, I’m covering religion for NPR in East Africa,” Burnett said. “But normally, I cover the [American] Southwest, which includes the borderlands. I’ve covered it for a very long time and speak Spanish.”

After getting his start on UT’s campus writing for The Daily Texan and studying journalism, Burnett traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish and cover civil wars around Central America. Work for the United Press International helped him garner experience with radio broadcasting, and since finding his niche, Burnett has never looked back.

“The one thing I love about radio is that you have this extra dimension to report a story so you go in with your ears open; you’re not just looking for details but you’re listening for details,” Burnett said. “You just learn to use sound to illustrate a story.”

Yet, reporting for international news organizations isn’t a care-free occupation, especially since Burnett specializes in a region of the world plagued by cartel wars and drug trafficking. The United States-Mexico Border has a distinguished reputation for manipulating, terrorizing and killing Mexican journalists. 

Although most reporting does not involve any hazardous circumstances, Burnett said, NPR has a hired security consultant who instructs reporters on “conceal and cover” techniques, first aid and situational awareness in countries with higher risk.

“[He and I] were in contact before I went to Mogadishu [Somalia] or the Congo. You have to have a pretty big security detail as a reporter; four gunmen around you at all times when you’re outside of the car, so it’s inhibiting, but it’s the cost of doing business there,” Burnett explained. 

At times, travel has also been a difficult aspect of his work for NPR. Raising a family while constantly on the move is no easy task, and in his memoir “Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions,” Burnett thanks his family for their support even in his absence.

Julie Hiebert, a friend of the Burnett family, argues that in spite of continuous departures from his home in Austin, Burnett’s work seems to bring him closer to the community he often leaves behind. 

“All of his family members have always been very proud of him and very supportive,” Hiebert said. “And in some ways I think he’s gathered more friends around him over the years. You’d think the opposite with someone who is so busy and so on. And I know when he goes places he makes friends, too.”

Burnett’s prowess as a journalist has earned him recognition and numerous awards including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award  and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television Digital News Association. His reports are frequently heard on member station KUT Radio, an affiliate of NPR that pays for daily programming, according to KUT news editor Matt Largey. 

Burnett’s popularity has also landed him some time on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” for pieces such as updates on Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations and a special report on ivory poaching in Tanzania.    

“You’ve got to learn early on not to be the funny guy. [Colbert will] cut you to ribbons otherwise,” Burnett said. 

Burnett said that with nearly three decades of experience in reporting, he becomes rather “evangelical” on NPR’s role in the evolving status of journalism. 

“Radio [is] a medium that works with the Internet generation because you can listen while doing something else. Plus, we transfer nicely up to digital, handheld devices,” Burnett said. “We cover the complicated, layered serious stuff that you need to know about to be an informed citizen. And I think people appreciate that it’s like ‘I’m gonna get my vegetables from NPR, I can get my dessert just about everywhere.’”

Printed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 as: International reporter shares NPR experiences