It’s rare for a journalist to admire a public-relations person. You always suspect they’re just there to lie to you. A student journalist, racked by the insecurity of the novice, can (and maybe should) be especially wary. So it’s a testament to how special John Burness was that he won the respect of The Chronicle’s student staff year after year. As a former editor of the paper, a professional journalist, and a member of the Duke and Durham communities, I deeply mourn his death on Dec. 19.
In fairness, PR people have many reasons to distrust journalists, too. We’re often out to thwart their schemes and make their jobs harder. Student journalists are still learning how to do the work, which means they make a lot of mistakes that can hurt or embarrass the university. Yet Burness went out of his way to get reporters and editors from The Chronicle the information we needed to cover the university. He made sure we had access to administrators, even at the expense of complaints inside the Allen Building. He treated us as the Duke community’s primary news source, every bit as deserving as other local (and national) outlets. This held true even in the heat of the 2006 lacrosse scandal, when campus was crawling with big-shots from big-name networks and newspapers, and when simply shutting us out would have been easy and defensible. Even though he wasn’t on the “academic” side of the university, he took Duke’s educational role seriously when it came to us, more than many members of the administration.
The paradigmatic Burness experience was like this: John would summon you to his office. For 45 minutes or so, he’d tell you the whole story as he saw it, off the record. Then he’d go on the record, and he’d say a lot less, but he would never contradict what he’d said privately. You knew you were getting spun—that was his job, of course—but you also knew that he wanted the story to be accurate even if it was negative, and that he cared deeply about nurturing student journalists. Although I sometimes got annoyed at what he wouldn’t tell me, I never caught him in a false or misleading answer. On one occasion, I remember him reaming us out over an editorial—which had nothing to do with his job directly—that he felt was insufficiently supportive of the First Amendment and thus a betrayal of the press’s role. Plus he was funny: a born raconteur, witty, self-deprecating, sometimes just a little bit off-color.
I live today in a Durham that Burness helped create. When I was an undergraduate, Duke students seldom left campus for anywhere but Target, Ninth Street and Shooter’s. I see the fruits of his commitment to forging better relations—even through the crucible of lacrosse—every time I see students around town. And I enjoyed meeting up with him in Durham over the years, where he’d tell some of his many old war stories or, with a twinkle in his eye, decline to tell others. He remained endlessly fascinated by the lacrosse saga, frank about his missteps and proud of what he thought he’d done well.
With his death, the university community loses nearly three decades of Duke institutional knowledge, wisdom, and mentorship. But the outpouring of grief I’ve heard from faculty, administrators, and alumni who treasured him are a testament to the legacy he built, one that will endure for decades to come.
David Graham, Trinity '09, Chronicle Editor Vol. 103
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