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fall 2021

Walking With Purpose

TV Anchor Cheryl Burton’s Inside Scoop on Making an Impact: Excellence
Written by: Louis Carr

Television news anchors got their title from the term given to the crucial, final spot in a relay team, but they can also embody the original meaning of the word—offering viewers a stabilizing sense of security and safety in the middle of a storm.

Cheryl Burton has been one of those trusted faces and voices in turbulent times for Chicagoans for almost 30 years. Now anchoring two of the top-rated newscasts in the city, she has earned more than a dozen Emmy awards during a notable career.

Among her many achievements, a campaign that helped reduce the number of infant deaths in Kansas and an exclusive interview with another famous Chicago broadcaster, Oprah Winfrey, when she ended her celebrated daytime talk show after 25 years.

Burton’s rise to the top didn’t just happen. “The reality is you don’t get success in life without working really hard, and the higher you climb, the harder it gets,” she says. “You don’t get what you wish for, you get what you work for.”

Burton got her work ethic from her parents. Mom was a special-ed teacher in Chicago’s public school system. Dad, who went to Morehouse College with Martin Luther King Jr., would tell Burton and her siblings before they left for school, “If you’re going to leave the house every day, you might as well learn something while you’re gone and come back smarter.”

It wasn’t just a happy thought for the day. When they got home, the kids would be sat in front of an easel and made to go up to it and tell something they had learned. “There was a test to see if you had been paying attention,” Burton remembers. “My parents wanted to know, were you paying attention in school today? Are you goofing off?”

Walk with purpose
Burton took her parents’ exhortations to heart. She earned a place in the school’s gifted programs, served on the student council, and went through every grade with perfect attendance. “I didn’t miss a single day… the winters, the strikes, being attacked going to and from school, at one point getting robbed on the L train. I never missed a single day because my parents valued education.”

There was an inspirational encounter on one of her school field trips, to the offices of Ebony and Jet magazines where they met founder John H. Johnson, an iconic figure in Black publishing. He told the group how he had built his business, and then had a special word for Burton as they were leaving.

“He told me to always walk with a purpose,” she says. “I’ve had people in my life from my parents, my aunts and uncles who are educators, from the ministers and pastors of the churches that I grew up in, that showed me what is possible when you work hard.”

I’m human first
Despite the early medicine and business interests, you might say that Burton actually began her working life in the news business—her first job, aged 12, was as a paper girl. “I was assisting my brother on his paper route,” she says, “so I know how to roll up a mean newspaper and put a rubber band around it and toss it on a front stoop.”

Her journey to the newsroom began while she was at Xerox, when she earned a spot on the early TV reality show, Star Search. She decided to leave the security of her day job to pursue possibilities in television. That led to a spot co-hosting Minority Business Report in Chicago, before learning the ropes in television news posts in Peoria, Illinois, and Wichita, Kansas.

In 1992, she landed a job at ABC 7 that brought her back to Chicago. She arrived as a weekend anchor, later taking on the weekday five o’clock news. Three years ago she also took on the ten o’clock broadcast. She considers it an honor and a blessing to bring the news in her hometown, on the station she used to watch when she was young.

What has it been like anchoring over the past 18 months, through George Floyd’s murder and the events that followed? “Hard,” she says, “because I’m human first; at the end of the day, I’m human. I have feelings.” As a journalist, she is less able to detach from events than others. “You can turn off your phone, turn off your TV, turn off your radio and go in your backyard and meditate, but because this is my job, I consume it,” she says. “I have to report on it and I have to be unbiased about it.”

Burton makes a distinction between the sort of impartial news she provides and the agenda-driven content of a lot of media. “Those are two different entities,” she says. “Local news, you prepare the news, you report the news and you state the facts. You don’t have an opportunity to give your opinion. That’s not what we do… you have to be unbiased and really just state the facts and the truth of the situation.”

People need to do their own research to find out what is real and what is not “because everything can get clouded by what you see on social media, what you see on cable news or cable television, or what you hear on radio talk shows or podcasts… there are so many entities now where you can get your information and you have to take the responsibility to find out what is right and what is not right.”

Burton’s professionalism has been recognized with a long list of honors, including the Chicago Journalists Association 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence International Award. They reflect her sense of duty and diligence.

“You have a responsibility when God gives you life, and I always say you were born on purpose for a purpose,” she says. “I wake up every day asking God, ‘How can I serve you?’ And I know that my life has value, to help others, to impact others. I was born on Christmas Day for a reason, and I know that my job is to bring life to people, inspire people, help people, uplift people and change people’s lives with the tools and the gifts that God has given me.”

Make sure you smile
Burton says she doesn’t take the opportunities she has been given lightly. “It is a responsibility and, you know, to whom much is given, much is expected. I don’t mind that, because I’m here for it because somebody allowed me to stand on their shoulders.” She has her parents especially in mind; her mother was educated in “a little red schoolhouse” in rural Alabama, “so I know what my life could have been, and I know what it is.”

Burton is also grateful for her siblings, her “best friends” who “held my hand in some of the darkest times, the biggest challenges, and they remind me of who I am, whose I am, and what really I am here for, my purpose. They’ve never forsaken me whenever I need them.” She brags on her nephews and nieces, who include a news anchor in Washington, D.C. and the first Black to receive a molecular engineering degree from the University of Chicago.

Two years ago, Burton established a scholarship fund at her old Robert Lindblom High School where, she notes, she is not the only journalism alum— Ethel Payne, known as the “First Lady of the Black Press,” was a student there in the 1920s.

Burton hears from young people who tell her she is an inspiration to them. When someone asks her how they can achieve what she has, Burton tells them, “Create your own footprint. You can follow my footsteps, but create your own footprint because this is my journey, but yours can be very different.”

Her advice in a nutshell: excellence. “What makes you stand apart from the rest of the people in the room? I always say the only difference between you and anybody in the room should be excellence. That’s it, just excellence. Be an excellent human being and be smart. Be brilliant. Be hardworking. Be resilient. Be strong. Be dedicated. Be committed to your passion. If you have passion, it will change the trajectory of your life. It changes the way you look at life.”

Always remember you are worthy, you matter and you have value, she adds. “Be strong and confident in yourself. Confidence can get you a job over the next person who has the same credentials as you, the same grade score. Confidence when you walk in that room, knowing that you’re interesting, that you’re special.”

Make sure you’re helping someone else, in some way, she says. “I don’t care how young you are; you can always give back. Maybe tutor, maybe read to the younger generation, take an elderly person to church with you. Go buy their groceries… but always find a way to be giving, to be kind, to be loving at the end of the day, and make sure you smile because your smile is your business card, it’s your logo, because how you make a person feel after they leave your presence, that is your trademark.

“And remember, if you do something in life for a person who can never pay you back, you have lived a blessed life.”

From an interview with Louis Carr