Former Miss Jamaica Universe Zahra Burton enjoyed being a local reporter in Kingston, but always dreamed of reporting in America. So she moved to the U.S., earned a Masters in Broadcast Journalism, and began an internship at Bloomberg. "Luckily for me, my dream came true," she tells NPR's Michel Martin.
Burton reported from Wall Street during the height of the financial crisis, and remembers it as "an incredible time to be a financial journalist." But after seven years, she began to feel an urge to tell "stories that made me feel better about what I was contributing to society." So she headed back home to her old beat in Jamaica, but with big plans to tell a wider story.
Burton is now the Host and Executive Producer of 18 Degrees North, an investigative news show that is broadcast in 27 countries. "What I wanted to do was to show the world that, when you're talking about global affairs, there are a lot of Caribbean stories that should be spoken about," she explains.
On being serial killer Lee Boyd Malvo's chosen interviewer
One of the reasons that he agreed to do the interview...was because he's never been able to fully address a Jamaican audience ... the message that he wanted to impart to ... Jamaican parents is that, when he was being raised, he had parents who were living abroad. And yes, they might have sent material things, but what he really needed was time to learn how to become a man, a responsible man. And the person that became that kind of father-figure for him was John Allen Muhammad who he met in Antigua. He wanted to make it very clear to the Jamaican parents who sometimes migrate, live overseas, send stuff back, 'Look guys, that's not what is important, what's important is time. You make sure that you're creating solid individuals so that they don't have the kind of holes that I had emotionally to invite this kind of trauma into my own life.'
On how America helped her go global on her show
We're the number one rated show in our time slot, at least here in Jamaica...And I believe that because of my time in the U.S., I am able to look at a story and recognize 'What's the hook? What's the angle? How do you go about telling that story so that it will matter to somebody in Japan, somebody in Turkey?' It does not matter where you are in the world, here's a take on a story and it's coming from this island.
On observing Black History Month
Black History Month means to me, a celebration of all these kinds of personalities that we see across the globe...the people who you look up to and you remember that, regardless of where you're coming from, it's not about that; it's where you're going. Yes, you might have had a tougher time to getting where you needed to get to, but the point is you pummeled through it, you kept going, and you got to where you got to, and you deserve the credit.
Tell Me More is observing Black History Month by speaking to voices with roots in Africa who are making an impact around the world as part of a global diaspora.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now let's hear from another voice in our Black History Month series. This February, we decided to feature voices who are making an impact across the diaspora in Africa, in Europe, the Caribbean and the U.S. Today, we are heading 18 degrees north. Those are the coordinates for the island of Jamaica. And Jamaica is home to a new program dedicated to telling Caribbean stories to the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "18 DEGREES NORTH")
ZAHRA BURTON: Hello, I'm Zahra Burton, and welcome to "18 Degrees North." It's from right here in Kingston, Jamaica where every week we're going to be bringing you on a global journey with us as we bring you a newer perspective on Caribbean affairs.
MARTIN: Zahra Burton was working as a financial journalist for Bloomberg here in the U.S., but she had an urge to work on an investigative news programs like "60 Minutes." But when the opportunities didn't come, she decided to head home to Jamaica and set up her own program. And Zahra Burton is with us now from Kingston to tell us more. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us and congratulations.
BURTON: Oh, thank you so much, Michel. I love the opportunity to be here. Thank you.
MARTIN: Well, we just heard you speak about a newer perspective on Caribbean affairs. Why did you think this was needed at a time like this?
BURTON: Well, mostly because in the Caribbean, when we talk about global news coverage and you talk about the Caribbean, you're talking about the Haiti earthquake or certain hurricanes that hit, let us say, Jamaica or some of the Eastern Caribbean. What I wanted to do was to show the world that when you're talking about global affairs, there are lots of Caribbean stories that should be spoken about.
MARTIN: You know, the show is broadcast in 27 countries across the Caribbean including in the U.S. and the U.K. One of the stories that - I'm sure you know - made an impact internationally was an interview that you did with Lee Malvo who was one of the Beltway snipers in the Washington, D.C. area. The elder man was executed for his crimes, but Lee Boyd Malvo was somebody you caught up with and interviewed. He's been sentenced to multiple life terms. He has not been very much heard from. First of all, I wanted to ask what made you pursue this story, and what were some of the things that you gleaned from it?
BURTON: We pursued this story because he is, in fact, born and raised in Jamaica and spent quite a bit of time in Antigua as well, which is another Caribbean island. And one of the reasons that he agreed to do the interview, he told us point blank, was because he's never been able to fully address a Jamaican audience. And I found that quite compelling. And he said that the message that he wanted to impart to Jamaican people, and in particular Jamaican parents, is that when he was being raised, he had parents who were living abroad. And yes, they might have sent material things. But what he really needed was time to learn how to become a man, a responsible man.
And the person that became the kind of father figure for him was John Allen Muhammad who he met in Antigua. And he wanted to make it very clear to the Jamaican parents who sometimes migrate, live overseas, send stuff back, look, guys, that's not what is important. What's important is time. You make sure that you're creating solid individuals, that they don't have the kind of holes that I had emotionally to invite this kind of trauma into my own life.
MARTIN: What kind of reaction did you get to that story? I can imagine where that might have been a very hard message for some to hear.
BURTON: There was one fellow, in fact, a young guy, he said to me, you know, this interview actually really touched my heart because he's in his 20s. He provides for his young daughter. And he said, you know, I never ever thought about it that way before. And a lot of fathers here in Jamaica, they believe that being a provider is what is important rather than being emotionally there for their children. And so he took away from that that he needed to be more present.
And that's the kind of story that I want to make sure is told to the world - the story that's going to have the impact. It might be a small impact. But I want to make sure that people understand that the Caribbean is a hotbed of stories. We have such an incredible culture here. We have - let me tell you something - no shortage of personalities in Jamaica. And it certainly makes for a colorful experience.
MARTIN: What made you decide to do this? I hope you don't mind my mentioning that you were a Miss Jamaica Universe in 2001. And you were doing well at Bloomberg. That's a respected news outlet in the United States. What made you decide to go home and start this operation?
BURTON: Well, when I became Miss Jamaica Universe, I was also a reporter here in Jamaica. In fact, I had such an amazing experience. I covered crime. I covered politics, the parliament, the senate. Now I always wanted to be an international journalist, no doubt about that. So I went to USC. I did my master's in broadcast journalism. I interned at Bloomberg. And luckily for me, my dream came true. They basically hired me. I started by rolling the teleprompter and worked my way up. I sure did.
And eventually, I became that person that I wanted to be, which was this international reporter. And I was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. So it was an incredible time to be a financial journalist. That said, after seven years, you start to say, OK, what's next? And what was supposed to be next for me was more in-depth, investigative, human interest stories - stories that really made me feel better about what I was contributing to society. Yes, it's important to cover the stock market. I will never downplay that.
But I just wanted a little bit more meaning to my life. And so I started to look around for different opportunities in the United States. But a lot of those opportunities came in the form of, oh, we could send you to the NASDAQ to cover the markets there. And that was not what I really wanted to do. And so because I couldn't get the opportunity of the CBS "60 Minutes" or the NBC "Dateline," I said, well, this is it. I'm heading back home to Jamaica because I want to look at the stories that are coming from the Caribbean but make them resonate. Regardless of where you are in the world, you understand what it is - as a woman, to see a woman getting beat up - domestic violence. We've done stories on HIV among gay men in Jamaica. But the reason that we're doing this story is that Jamaica has the second highest rate of HIV among gay men in the world. So there is that global context that we provide.
MARTIN: How do you decide what stories to cover?
BURTON: I think that's generally what it is - the stories that will resonate globally regardless of where you are in the world. We try to look at stories, for instance, small islands that people have never ever heard of like Nevis. We're actually hoping to do something of an offshore banking in our second season, which is coming up, hopefully, by this April. But islands that people have never heard of but have hundreds, thousands of companies that are Russian, that are U.S.-based, that are these small mom-and-pop owned places that are just maybe P.O. boxes, but there's a lot of money that is moving through these Eastern Caribbean, really small islands. But they have a very big reach in terms of who is using them for their businesses.
MARTIN: It's interesting 'cause you're part of a global movement really of what some might call a reverse migration. You know, people who have either been educated in the U.S. or spent time in the U.S. and - or either they see opportunities back home that weren't there before when they left. And so they're going back home to kind of see what they can do. Or they just have a sense of mission. They want to end the brain drain that so many places have experienced. And I was curious about how you feel your time in the U.S. affects both the way you see stories and how people see you.
BURTON: I do believe that my time in the United States has allowed me to understand how to tell stories that have that global impact. There are people that have been here in Jamaica. And I remember them telling us, nobody cares about what happens in the rest of the Caribbean. Well, I'm happy to say that my show is resonating. We're the number one rated show in our time slot, at least here in Jamaica. We're resonating across the Caribbean as well.
And I believe that because of my time in the U.S., I'm able to look at a story and recognize, what's the hook? What's the angle? How do you go about telling that story so that it will matter to somebody in Japan, somebody in Turkey? It does not matter where you are in the world. Here's a take on a story, and it's coming from this island because this island has this particular ranking in the world when it comes to this particular issue.
And Bloomberg, one of the things I loved about my experience at Bloomberg - and I can never underestimate this - Bloomberg is a data-driven company. We had to do a lot of crunching of data and a lot of analysis. So what you learned to glean from that is ranking and who has the best this and who has the most this. And if you can tell them that way, you make them meaningful to people. And then suddenly, they pay attention.
MARTIN: Finally, it's Black History Month, as you know. And as a journalist who's worked both in the U.S. and the Caribbean, do you mind if I ask what this month means to you?
BURTON: I think Black History Month means to me a celebration of all these kinds of personalities that we see across the globe. I'm not talking about just the people from the United States. Obviously, who comes to mind immediately for me, Oprah Winfrey, having been a journalist and then creating a big, huge production empire. Those are the people that you look up to. And that you remember that regardless of where you are coming from, it's not about that, it's where you're going. Yes, you might have had a tougher time to getting where you needed to get to. But the point is, you pummeled through it. You kept going, and you got to where you got to. And you deserve the credit.
MARTIN: Zahra Burton is host and executive producer of "18 Degrees North." That's an investigative news program based in Jamaica. She joined us from Kingston, Jamaica. Zahra, thank you.
BURTON: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.