Reporting For Duty: In Conversation With Lisa LaFlamme
CTV newscaster Lisa LaFlamme talks freedom of the press, the art of asking questions and why she bid adieu to to Twitter.
Night after night, in every province and territory, more than a million of us welcome Lisa LaFlamme-and through her, the world-into our homes. As chief anchor and senior editor of CTV National News, the country’s most-watched national newscast, the veteran journalist is tasked with relating the events of the day while making sure the information she’s sharing is accurate and accessible. It’s a job that requires warmth, intellect and authority, a rare combination that has earned her a place among Reader’s Digest‘s Most Trusted Canadian Influencers. Here, LaFlamme talks about reporting from war zones, delivering the news with gravitas and why she’s working to establish freedom of the press around the world.
Reader’s Digest: According to our readers, you’re someone they can rely on. What qualities make for a trustworthy news anchor?
Lisa LaFlamme: First of all, I’m honoured people trust me. Relationships are built over time, and after 27 years in the business, it means everything. In a role like mine, people want to talk to you, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that. You’re often entrusted with secrets and then have to do something with that information. On a personal level, you can help someone. On a professional level, you can dig deeper and find out, for instance, which government body can speak to a particular issue. All journalists have is their trustworthiness and integrity-those qualities are everything.
You started out writing copy for a local TV station, a background not all broadcasters share. How does that relationship with language factor into your work?
This sounds corny, but anchoring the news is really about having a conversation. I always think of my sisters, who work in other fields. If I’m talking about ISIS to them, they don’t have the luxury of the research I’ve done. I rely on authenticity: I can’t say things that don’t sound like how I would speak to my mom or to a viewer I don’t know. And ultimately, I can’t say things that I don’t know for sure.
As a journalist, you have to operate without bias. So what happens when you’re interviewing someone you know is lying?
Again, it all comes back to research. If I’m doing a big interview, I try to anticipate the possible ways they might answer questions, so that I have follow-ups, or so I can find an inconsistency with a statement they may have made five years ago. That’s my job: I’m there for the viewer, to expose what isn’t quite right.
Earlier in your career, as a field reporter, you were on the ground in Iraq, you were in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and you were embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Do any memories stand out from that time?
The infantry are the best PR the military’s ever had. When you’re with them in an armoured tank, it’s about as close to being trapped in a hockey bag as you could ever want to be. It is so gross. Those guys educated me, they teased me, they protected me. They saved me on several occasions. I was in Afghanistan on and off from 2006 to 2011 and many of the soldiers I spent time with there died. I’d just done a big interview with Captain Nichola Goddard, who was the first Canadian female killed in combat, when she died. I’d been out with her; I loved her. All these years later, I’m still very close with her family. I’m a human being first and a journalist second.
Do you ever feel afraid when you’re working in high-stress situations?
Oh, I naturally feel fear! I went to Paris after last November’s terror attacks, and there were moments, amid the massive crowds gathered around the Place de la République, when I thought, God, this is an easy target. And now, with ISIS and the radicalized disenfranchised, you have no idea where the threat is coming from. But fear makes you stronger; it keeps you on your toes, makes you more alert.
You’ve been vocal about how Western journalists are targeted in the Middle East. Are matters getting worse?
Yes. In Syria, there are very few independent eyes on the ground. Why? Because ISIS is beheading Western journalists. We can’t back away, but I understand the fear. I remember being in Baghdad in 2005 when an Irish reporter was abducted. In those days, if you were lucky, they’d kidnap you for 48 hours, then drop you off in the middle of the night on some street. You weren’t going to end up in a desert, in an orange jumpsuit, with some guy in a balaclava holding a knife. How has it become so ideologically acceptable for this distorted faction to say, “We’re doing this for our faith”? Muslims are a beautiful, loving people. ISIS has co-opted a peaceful message.
Which feeds a vicious cycle of racism and Islamophobia that extremists then use to justify their own actions.
It sure does.
You’re a big supporter of the organization Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). Why did you get involved?
To feel that I’m helping an industry I love. We’re lucky in this country-there isn’t anything we can’t report on. JHR goes to countries where “freedom of the press” is really just an expression. My most memorable experience was in 2013, in the city of Goma, a war zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I went to mentor female journalists. Many of these women had never been to university. They slept in their newsrooms, because it wasn’t safe to go home at night. They had to sneak back at 5:30 a.m. to breastfeed their babies. The DRC is known as the rape capital of the world; people rape female journalists there to silence them. So why do these strong, funny, determined women do this work? Because they believe they’re going to make a difference. It’s remarkable.
You spend a lot of time immersed in hard, heartbreaking stories. How do you find balance?
I live next to an amazing dog park in Toronto. Every morning, my chocolate Lab, Toblerone, and I take a 90-minute walk. During that time, I make my conference call to discuss stories with our writers and the assignment desk. And whenever I travel anywhere for work, I think about the park and think about the dog and think about peaceful times. It’s my therapy.
It must be a challenge to carve out those peaceful, private times. There’s a lot of pressure for journalists in the public eye to be transparent, to be accessible on social media. How do you feel about that?
I stopped tweeting in December, though I still use Twitter as a news feed. I had to pull back from it. There’s lovely outreach, but there’s so much poison, too. I’m not going to debate with an anonymous person who wants to tell me that Canada’s got it all wrong, that we shouldn’t be bringing in refugees. I couldn’t handle the racism being thrown at me through Twitter. I know it’s there, but I don’t need it on my cellphone.
That’s the Internet’s golden rule: Don’t read the comments.
Someone on Twitter has threatened to shoot me between the eyes. It’s vile. And it’s anonymous. If you don’t have the guts to put your name on something, it doesn’t mean anything.
Social media is a big part of how we consume news these days-we’re constantly flooded with information. For many news organizations, there’s a push to “get there first.” How do you balance that pressure with the need to be accurate?
In my case, our show is the 11 p.m. newscast, so we have the luxury of time. But I’ve worked on a 24-hour news channel, so I know what it’s like.
I’m thinking of 9/11, when you were on air and had to report what was happening in real time.
It’s the same when you’re in a war zone, where something happens and you’re on the phone to the network right away, but you have very little information about immediate events. It’s true-there is so much coming at us, and the general public consumes just the headlines. But today, our newscast has more viewers than ever. Why is that, if people can get news all day long? What we give them is much more than the headline-it’s context, the meat of the story.
Given that science and journalism are both pursuits of the truth, why do you think journalism fails more often?
Science is what it is-we trust it because it’s methodical, mathematical. Journalism involves human interpretation. If I’m in Baghdad or in Toronto, I’m going to filter what I see through Canadian eyes, whereas a guy from Kuwait would interpret it differently. Inherent in that is the difference between science and journalism-one of them can’t be disputed.
So why should Canadians trust in journalism?
There are a lot of people who don’t. But journalists do this job, day in and day out, because we believe the public should have access to information and that figures of authority-from schoolteachers to Scout leaders to politicians-should be held accountable for their actions. Canadians should still want to know, from a reputable, credible source, what’s happening in their world. If you want to broaden your horizons beyond your own backyard, beyond your province, beyond your country, you need to find a source you trust.