As a reporter in Atlanta, it is a must to understand all that the city has to offer. Whether it is something that is a common source for discussion for travelers, Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, or whether it is one of the worst intersections in the southeast due to drugs and HIV, also known as The Bluff, reporters must not shy away from topics that are often seen as infamous.
Jim Burress is a reporter and producer for the Atlanta station of National Public Radio (NPR), called WABE-FM, and has covered both of these topics. He is a regular contributor to the show, Marketplace, and also had stories air on NPR’s shows Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Day to Day. Burress is credible in the Atlanta media scene and is coming to the University of West Georgia’s Media Day on March 5 to contribute to the panel and networking sessions.
Burress grew up in Louisville, Ky. and started his media career in high school after attending an audition for local teenage hosts at the NBC station.
“I got there and there were about 200 other high schoolers there for the same thing and I didn’t think my chances were very good,” said Burress. “But I ended up being selected and I really liked the process of it. I knew later on that that was what I wanted to do.”
Before he landed the spot of teen television host, Burress knew he wanted to join the media industry because he wanted to make an impact on an audience.
“I have never really been interested in being anything other than a reporter,” said Burress. “Even as a small child, I can remember watching Nelson Mandela while he was in prison and thinking, ‘wow, what an amazing job to be able to chronicle and to be a part of history and to always be involved in important things happening.’ I’ve never had any other career goal.”
Recently, Burress got the chance to make an impression on his audience when he wrote and produced a radio documentary called Stuck in The Bluff. He tells the story of a non-profit called Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) that travels into The Bluff to do something that is illegal in Georgia, exchange used needles for clean ones, something that is only allowed by a doctor or pharmacist. Burress followed the group around and recorded first hand accounts from AHRC volunteers and the people who utilize them.
“I had heard of AHRC before, but I was not really intimate with the work,” said Burress. “Myself, a reporter and a photographer from Creative Loafing went down [to The Bluff] for the day, and that was our starting point for the documentary. It was where we got most of the first hand accounts.”
Seeing as AHRC was operating an illegal needle exchange to prevent the spread of HIV, Burress said that the amount of arrests, or lack thereof, for giving out clean needles, was surprising.
“That’s just strange to me,” said Burress. “It’s not that people haven’t been arrested for needle possession, no one has ever been arrested for providing a clean needle even though the state law makes that illegal.”
After learning about this, Burress went to an Atlanta police officer to ask him why the Atlanta Police Department never arrests anyone even though AHRC doesn’t hide what it’s doing.
When asked, the officer had to ask Burress about the law.
“The thing is, they knew exactly what the interview was about,” said Burress. “It wasn’t sprung on him out of the blue; it wasn’t a ‘gotcha’ type moment. He knew what we were talking about and what the purpose was, so I was really surprised when I asked the question that he didn’t know himself. That this is one of the higher up’s in the police department.”
Burress said that obstacles like he faced when talking to the police officer are just some of the things journalists have to deal with.
He said that making sure you are going into this field of work for the right reasons would make it a worthwhile job, not just for the glam that often comes with working for the media.
“A lot of young people I talk to want to go into television because they want to be a prominent anchor or they think they’re going to make a lot of money,” said Burress. “While that’s always possible, I would say it’s the wrong reason to go in. It’s a passion of telling people stories and not getting defeated by all kinds of obstacles.”
Burress praised the media field and said if someone has a passion to do it, then it is the most fulfilling career he could think of.
“I think The Bluff documentary is a perfect example of [helping people],” said Burress. “It’s something going on around us. It’s extremely troubling and important; it says a lot about us as a community. But nobody is talking about it. Nobody is aware. Bringing that awareness that otherwise wouldn’t be there is the most rewarding part.”