NPR correspondent speaks to students about his experiences in journalism

Tehreem Shahab

Austin-based National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett told UT students although journalism isn’t a high paying field, it offers a variety of experiences.

“(If) you ever get a chance to ride in an air boat, take it.” Burnett said during a Monday lecture. “You get a chance to cover a war, take it, with caution … It can really be an exciting career, super satisfying and, on a good day, you get to slay the dragon.”

Burnett spoke to students in the Belo Center for New Media about his experiences in journalism. He is currently the Southwest correspondent for NPR and covers Texas news, immigration and natural disasters.

To show how the natural sounds enchanced storytelling, Burnett played his radio coverage of the flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey. In the report, he interviewed citizens who were in the middle of rescuing those stranded by the flood. Burnett said the sounds of the rescue boat and people helped captured the raw emotion of the tragedy.

“There was just so much going on,” Burnett said. “There was just stuff happening, and I wasn’t having to ask any questions, it was just life roaring ahead. You want to be that fly on the wall. You want for things to be happening organically without the journalist jumpstarting answers.”

Journalism senior Kaitlyn Karmout said Burnett’s emphasis on natural sound for radio reporting was reminiscent of what she was taught in her audio storytelling class.

“We are taught time and time again to really pay attention, when you’re doing audio stories, to natural sound,” Karmout said. “That is what is really going to compel your viewers to drive them to want keep listening to your story.”

The talk ended with a Q&A session, during which graduate journalism student Omar Rodriguez-Ortiz asked how journalists could be respectful of victims of natural disasters in their coverage.

“It’s what you do,” Burnett said in response. “I think we approach most people who have lost family or homes with a degree of respect, that we want to tell their story.”

Rodriguez-Ortiz said journalists must empathize with victims before they even approach them.

“We have to put ourselves in the victim’s shoes before we even say ‘Hi,’” Rodriguez-Ortiz said. “Because journalists … have a bad reputation right now, and we need to do our best to change that.”