Thursday, August 10, 2017

Personalities Versus The News

The era of the personality cult finally appears to be ended at CBC’s The National.

The daily 10 p.m. news program will replace, as expected, the saintly but boring Peter Mansbridge with four anchors. The hope is that the change brings a much overdue freshness to the failing newscast.

The Mansbridge personality cult ended earlier this summer with the man’s retirement as chief news anchor after 29 years. During those three decades The National’s credibility, and its audience, sank steadily.

The National viewership over the last year averaged 866,000 compared with 1.3 million for the CTV National News.

Alternating four anchors carries risks, but risks are needed for The National to have any hope of regaining its former stature. The National has been with us in one form or another since the early 1950s.

The chosen four all carry journalistic credentials, which in recent years CBC has considered less important than high profile personalities. Mansbridge had no serious journalistic qualifications while other stars such as Amanda Lang, Rex Murphy, Jian Ghomeshi and Evan Solomon, got themselves into pickles by forgetting that straight, unbiased reporting takes precedence over being seen as a star.

Both Adrienne Arsenault, the CBC’s senior correspondent, and Rosemary Barton, host of Power and Politics, have excellent journalistic credentials. Ian Hanomansing, often seen anchoring on CBC, and Andrew Chang, a CBC Vancouver local news anchor, have journalistic experience but are viewed more as presenters.

Chang will anchor from Vancouver, Barton from Ottawa and Arsenault and Hanomansing from Toronto. The CBC brass says the anchors will take turns reporting from the field.

CBC news chief Jennifer McGuire says The National will have more digital focus, whatever that means, plus more original journalism, insight and analysis. The
Toronto journalistic literati chimes in with other thoughts on what is needed: background, context, investigative reporting.

Those are all clichés and weary buzzwords that the journalism elite have been using for years.

The National, and most other news outfits, need a new journalism that tells people more besides something has happened. People know something happened immediately after it happens. They get it from hundreds of news sources: Twitter, Facebook, other Internet sources, radio, television, newspapers, word of mouth.

They need to know how what happened connects with their lives and what it says about the society in which they are living.

An important need for The National, and much of Canadian journalism in general, is diversity. Not diversity in such things as colour, nationality and sex. We are a reasonably advanced and tolerant society moving forward in understanding diversity in race and sexual orientation. What we are lacking is knowledge and understanding related to our geographic diversity.

Our national news media is not reporting enough on how people in the regions are living their lives. What are their successes, aspirations, troubles and fears? What are their stories and how do they relate to our overall society?

News media spending cutbacks have created huge black news holes across Canada. Knowledge and understanding of other regions are sinking like houses consumed by a Florida sinkhole.

Local news operations, notably the weekly newspapers, are covering their communities but national outfits such as news services, TV and radio networks and the larger dailies have cut back cross-country coverage. Too much news focus today is on the urban areas, particularly Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal. We need to know more about the lives of people in less urban areas such as Nelson, B.C., Biggar, Saskatchewan and Oromocto, New Brunswick.

Diversifying its anchor team is a good first step toward The National returning to prominence. Hopefully the anchors and their news teams will follow the simple rules for news gathering excellence: Be curious and ask simple questions without being obnoxious or putting yourself into the spotlight. Observe and report clearly without bias.

Those are the traits of the best journalists I have encountered. Interestingly, many of those have come from the Atlantic provinces where personality cults appear to be less important. Maritimers and Newfoundlanders have a “down home” way of recognizing a good story and knowing how to tell it.

The National could use a bit of that.


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