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Watching the Watchdog: How Are Canada's News Anchors Faring?

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Tim Knight writes the regular media blog Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

My last blog came down hard on Global National's anchor, Dawna Friesen. I wrote:

"She has all the experience and attributes to be a world-class TV news anchor [but when reading the news] does hardly anything except read her teleprompter without stumbling. She's curiously emotionally uninvolved in her stories."

In the past, I've also been critical of Lisa LaFlamme, anchor of CTV National News:

"LaFlamme does a competent and professional job but is a bit too breathlessly pushy which causes every story, important or not, to sound pretty much the same."

I guess I've been hardest on Peter Mansbridge, doyen of the troika of Canadian TV news anchors, host of CBC's The National:

"A patronizing chief-anchor-for-life who can read a teleprompter without stumbling, yet almost never actually seems to feel the scenes he describes. Unless it's politics, his specialty, he rather obviously doesn't care what's in the stories, doesn't see the scenes, doesn't feel the emotions. Has no genuine human response. As a result, of course, neither does the viewer."

There's a thread running through all three of these criticisms -- that to one extent or another, the big three of Canadian TV news are captives of the teleprompters which sits in front of their cameras and shows them the words they're paid a lot of money to read at us.

But, you sneer, who cares? TV news is so irrelevant. So very yesterday; surely everyone gets their news from the Internet these days?

Not so. According to the most recent study I could find, most Canadians -- 38 per cent in fact -- say TV is still their preferred format for news and information -- computers come next at 30 per cent.

Which means that most of us get most of our news from those glib, good-looking people who (mostly) sit behind space-age desks and bring us what they consider to be the most important, interesting, controversial, weird, amusing events of the day. All that information (including lots of commercials) fitting exactly and miraculously into the time allotted.

All three still have a tremendous influence on what we Canadians know about our world and how it's turning.

So it seems only appropriate, particularly at this time of year, to draw up a report card on how they're doing:

Qualifications for the Job: A+. All three have served their time behind desks and, more importantly, in the field. All have the requisite local, national and foreign experience for the job. All are highly intelligent and cover special events with expertise and professionalism. Not incidentally, all have looks and voices suited to big-time anchoring anywhere in the world.

Professional knowledge: A+. They've all been around the journalistic block a few times and picked up vast amounts of information while doing so about both the craft of journalism and the workings of the world. All know a little about a lot and a lot about a little (necessary skills in journalism).

Reading Skills: A+. None have any problem reading the teleprompter.

Ad Libbing Skills: A. All can ad lib when necessary (when something goes wrong in the newscast, for instance) with confidence and professionalism.

Communication Skills: B to B-. Oh dear. Just about all they seem to remember when the script starts to roll on the teleprompter and that red light in front of the camera orders them to speak, is that they must fit the script's words into the allotted time, pronounce exotic names as if native-born and above all, never stumble.

Something very peculiar happens to these three intelligent and experienced professionals when the words roll. They become hypnotized reading machines. As a result (if I might be hyperbolic for a moment) they tend to read their teleprompter lines with as much connection, involvement, humanity and emotion as they would use to check eyesight on an optometrist's wall chart.

Not good. Because real communication depends on the speaker actually seeing the scenes she or he is describing, genuinely thinking the thoughts, honestly feeling the emotions. The art is to make the script disappear, take personal ownership of the scenes, thoughts and emotions, and share news of things that matter with one other person.

In fact, I suggest, the only efficient and acceptable way to pass on spoken information to the viewer in TV news is for the speaker to think aloud.

The curse of the teleprompter does something else too -- somehow it makes these anchors read loud and fast in a manner only appropriate to talking to large numbers of viewers.

But one person reading loud and fast at lots of others -- whether in real life or on TV -- is the least successful, effective and efficient method humans have ever invented to pass on information, one to the other.

Ok, smartass, you say. That's an interesting theory. So what's your proof?

Try this test:

Tune into any of the big three news broadcasts. Look away from the TV screen for some fifteen minutes and imagine the anchor is in your living room (or bedroom, as the case may be). Don't look, just listen for a while.

Now ask yourself: Is this person talking to me, communicating with me, informing me of things that matter? Is she or he involved in the information in the script? Is this person thinking the thoughts, seeing the scenes, feeling the emotions? Does this person care about the information and want me to care about it too? Or is it all just words, words, words signifying very little?

And is the person the primary source of the information? Or is the teleprompter the primary source?

And is this person speaking in a natural volume and speed, appropriate to someone invited into my living room (or bedroom) to tell me about the state of my world?

And out of all that information, what, if anything, can I remember?

When you've answered all that, try this:

Look back at the screen. Is it appropriate that this person stares at you -- sometimes for twenty, even thirty seconds -- without ever breaking eye contact?

No, of course it isn't. In fact, it's exceedingly unnatural. Normally, when two people talk to each other they break eye contact every few seconds. The speaker more often than the listener. They have to look away to think.

In real life, staring at another person for more than, say, ten seconds makes the staree exceedingly uncomfortable. That's because such behaviour almost always involves either of two emotions -- anger or lust. And neither of those emotions are appropriate when you've invited this stranger into your living room (or bedroom).

Ok smartass, you say again. Easy to criticize. So how can the big three Canadian anchors do their thing better?

Rehearse, that's how.

Rehearsal for a newscast is a little complicated to explain in full detail here. But essentially it demands that the script be prepared (except for late-breaking news, of course) early enough to give the anchor time to become the primary source of the information -- thus relegating the teleprompter to its proper place as support and backup.

It can be done. When I wrote for the late, great Peter Jennings who anchored ABC News out of New York for twenty-four years, he rehearsed every story so that when he finally went to air he -- not the machine -- owned the information.

Jennings, a Canadian, turned out to be one of the world's truly great news anchors.

Because he communicated like a human being. Not a machine.