Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada. He's trained thousands of broadcast journalists in hundreds of workshops in a dozen countries and for ten years was lead trainer and executive producer, CBC TV journalism training.
Almost exactly two years ago, in July, 2010, Global TV announced it had signed a new anchor for its flagship evening news program, Global National.
Troy Reeb, vice-president of news for Shaw Media, which includes Global, said hopefully: "We wanted someone that wasn't preaching the sermon from the mount. It's really hard to find, but I think we've found it in spades."
The new anchor responded with: "I think what we have to do now is have more conversations with Canadians."
The news anchor was Dawna Friesen, first woman to take over the prestigious anchor chair at any Canadian national TV news organization.
These two years later, it seems fair to ask how she's doing at the job? Whether Reeb got an anchor who doesn't preach and whether she's having conversations with Canadians like she had forecast?
First, Dawna Friesen's qualifications.
In a word, awesome. She has all the experience and attributes to be a world-class TV news anchor.
Long stints as a journalist and sometime anchor with CTV, CBC and NBC to get the necessary credentials, the medals on her uniform, as it were. Wars, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reports from Pakistan, Serbia, Russia, Morocco and, mandatory for a correspondent based in London, endless stories on Britain's royal family.
In her very first year at Global National, Friesen won the 2011 Gemini Award for Canada's best news anchor.
Added to all this, she's obviously intelligent, has a fine voice (I've heard her interviewed) and looks like a queen in a sailor's dream, in the classiest possible way, of course.
So, back to the questions.
Does she "preach"?
If by preaching, Reeb meant "sermonize, pontificate, lecture," the answer's no.
She doesn't preach. Preaching takes passion. Conviction. Involvement.
In fact, Friesen does hardly anything except read her teleprompter without stumbling. She's curiously emotionally uninvolved in her stories. Even stories about exotic wars in exotic places. Places she knows.
Her narrations all look and sound pretty much the same. Whether about a horrendous murder and mutilation in Toronto, or London banks cheating on interest rates.
So she's not preaching. But she's not doing her job either. Because one of the most important parts of any anchor's job is to separate stories and their meanings by using an appropriately different emotional tone for each. If that's not done we viewers drift away for a pee or beer break or even into the very first stage of a nap.
Second question -- does she have "conversations with Canadians"?
Again, the answer's no. A conversation, by definition is "a talk in which news and ideas are exchanged." Friesen doesn't do conversation. She doesn't exchange. She announces. To a group.
Yet if there's one rule every one of the scores of broadcast journalists I've ever coached -- in Canada or overseas -- agrees with (at least in theory) it's this: the best broadcaster talks to one person, and only one person, at a time. And shares information with that person.
My answers to those two questions sadden me. Because Dawna Friesen could be very good indeed.
But they also makes we want to sit down with her and discuss some ideas on anchoring.
This is what I'd suggest:
- When anchoring, please use your normal voice at your normal speed and volume -- the voice, speed and volume you use when talking to one other person outside the studio. Your normal voice works just as well on TV. Try to think of just one reason why they shouldn't!
- When you talk to another person in real life and without a script you actually think aloud. (Consider, for a moment, the alternative -- not thinking aloud when talking to another person in real life and without a script.) Thinking aloud works great on TV, too.
- When you talk to another person in real life you see the scenes you're describing. You think the thoughts. You feel the emotions. You show the emotions (most of them, anyway). It works just as well on TV. How could it be otherwise?
- When you talk to another person in real life you take appropriate physical and emotional part in the conversation. Face, hands, body, heart, soul -- all of them join in if you really want to be heard, really want to be understood, really want to bring understanding to the other person. TV is no different. How could it be different?
- Something else. Women have smaller larynges (which control the voice's pitch and volume) than men. That means men generally have deeper voices than women. Your vocal folds (also known as vocal cords) are shorter, and thinner than men's. Which means your natural voice is pitched slightly higher than the average male voice. Please don't try to compensate for the difference by pushing your voice to try to match the male sound. It makes you lose all that absolutely essential subtlety and nuance which provides so much of a story's meaning. Microphones are very good these days. Your voice is excellent in its natural state. I promise.
Finally, may I commend to you the immortal words sung by Kathy Mattea in Come From The Heart.
You've got to sing like you don't need the money,
Love like you'll never get hurt.
You've got to dance like nobody's watching,
It's got to come from the heart,
If you want it to work.
Parts of this column were adapted from my book Storytelling and the Anima Factor (lulu.com)