By RACHEL SURMAN
Special to the RJRC
The pressure on news anchors to be high-profile celebrities has never been greater, Dawna Friesen, Global National’s news anchor and executive editor, told Ryerson journalism students during a recent visit to the J-School.
Friesen said she has resisted the intense pressure to become a personality.
“You need to be out there, be in public, be speaking and be this larger than life personality and that’s not why I got into the business…,” she told the crowd of about 40 students and faculty.
Friesen, originally from Winnipeg, has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years at various news outlets across Canada. She started her career at a newspaper in Portage la Prairie and went onto eventually work for NBC in the United States, where she won an Emmy for her coverage on the night Barack Obama was elected president and a Gemini award for Best News Anchor in 2011.
Friesen says that the pressure to be “in the story” is significantly greater for TV journalists – particularly American TV journalists – but she has never agreed with that aspect of the business.
“The work that I’m impressed with is when the story is about the people in the story and not about the anchor,” she observed.
Friesen speculated that the pressure to be a news personality might have played a role in the fall of NBC’s popular anchor Brian Williams. Williams took a leave of absence from the network in February after he “misremembered” a 2003 incident while reporting in Iraq. He falsely claimed he was on board a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, when he was actually on a helicopter that was close behind it. The controversy has prompted much soul-searching about the public’s trust – or lack of trust – in the news media.
Friesen’s career before Global included reporting on the world’s major news stories as a foreign correspondent for NBC. She worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, covered the Israeli Palestinian conflict and reported on the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
She said times have changed drastically for foreign reporters. When she reported from the region a decade ago, her team members plastered the network logo on their vans and bulletproof vests and, as a result they were “mostly left alone,” she said. More recently, however, journalists have become prey for extremist groups.
“We began to realize in Iraq that actually we should take off the TV marking, because we realized we were being targeted,” Friesen said.
She said the new rules of the game have a lot to do with the changing face of war. Conventional war with its front lines and clearly identifiable players is a thing of the past, she said. She described the fighting in Syria and Iraq as a “free for all” and said there really isn’t a way for journalists to stay safe.
“It’s just not the way extremists like ISIS are doing business,” says Friesen. “They don’t have any rules… To be a journalist in those parts of the world now is incredibly dangerous and it takes a lot of guts to do it.”
Citing statistics from The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Friesen noted that 61 journalists were killed in 2014. She insisted, however, that journalists must not be deterred from their mission.
“It’s frightening but it shouldn’t stop us from trying to get there and trying to tell those stories, but it’s become harder and harder,” she said.
Friesen also advocated for transparency as the best way to maintain audience trust. She said she doesn’t accept money to speak at events and confines her activities to unpaid appearances at charity events mostly because she has a busy job and a young son she prefers to spend time with. She said she doesn’t see a problem with anchors being paid for speeches as along as they are up front about it.
In the wake of the Leslie Roberts conflict of interest scandal, Friesen says transparency is “the most important thing. ” Roberts, who has since resigned from Global, secretly co-owned a small public relations firm and often featured his clients on-air. Friesen said Roberts made a “bad personal judgment call” that shouldn’t tarnish Global as a whole.
Despite all the challenges besetting journalism today, Friesen said she remains optimistic and isn’t one of those “old fogies” who’s afraid of the future. Change, she told students, is a good thing.
“Be enthusiastic about what you’re doing, and don’t let people do the doom and gloom thing, “ Friesen said. “There is a bright future [in journalism] and you will figure it out.”
Rachel Surman is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.