PETER J. THOMPSON/NATIONAL POST
Nationally acclaimed television journalist Lisa LaFlamme was born in Kitchener, Ont., and graduated from the University of Ottawa. She began her career at CTV's Kitchener affiliate CKCO in 1988 as a copy writer and script assistant. She moved on to become an anchor in 1997 and was co-host of CTV's 'Canada AM' from 2001 to 2003. She joined 'CTV National News' in 2003 as a foreign correspondent as well as backup anchor to Lloyd Robertson. When Robertson left that position in September of 2011, LaFlamme was promoted to sole anchor in his place.
Guest Interviewer: Cally Stephanow
Born and raised in Roblin, Cally Stephanow is halfway through her Interactive Media Arts — Media Production diploma at Assiniboine Community College. Ever since she saw the movie "Blood Diamond" when she was 15, she dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. Her idol was CTV chief anchor and senior editor Lisa LaFlamme, and when tasked with doing a feature story for her journalism course, Stephanow was determined to profile LaFlamme. Her tenacity in making this happen so impressed her instructor, Diane Nelson, the regular interviewer for this column, that Nelson wanted to give a promising young journalist the chance to be published. Hence this interview.
I don’t think many people believed me when I said I was about to have an interview with Lisa LaFlamme!
Listen, I love speaking to students because I certainly believe this is the best industry in the world, and I had people, when I was in school, who I pushed and prodded to talk to me. That might have been 35 years ago, but I get it — I still understand and remember.
Well, I appreciate that. What was the driving force that made you realize you wanted a career in journalism?
Well, I actually knew very young. I knew in grade school I wanted to write. I was always writing and I certainly didn’t know it was called journalism, but I had a passion for it. Going into high school, I spoke in Grade 9 to the guidance counsellor and asked what I had to do to become a journalist. I really followed politics throughout my education, right through university. I just loved writing, telling people’s stories and was insatiably curious about what was going on. It just really was the perfect fit for me.
Did you ever think you’d become so successful?
I never really thought about, it to be honest. In fact, I couldn’t get a job for a long time! When I graduated, I started in radio news, which was the best way for me to hone my skills to be fast and accurate. And you get comfortable hearing your own voice, which can be a little daunting at first. So I never really thought about where this could take me. I had a lot of part-time jobs until I could get a full-time job as a journalist. And even then, I had to report three days a week and anchor two days a week.
It wasn’t until I came to CTV that I was really a full-time reporter, which was brilliant because I was travelling all over the world no matter what the story was. It just sort of evolved. It is a work ethic that you love it, you do it for you, you do it for the truth of the story, and if you don’t worry about where it takes you, things just unfold the way they should. Writing, writing, writing is always the key. In this business, you can always differentiate the good from the great by their writing skills.
Was getting a job as a journalist your biggest challenge?
Yes — getting a full-time job. I could get little tiny jobs — for example, the first job I had was four hours on a Saturday and four hours on a Sunday writing international copy for a local TV newscast. And just to get that, I sat in a lobby for about six hours until the news director of the day would see me. I just thought I don’t want to be pushy or rude. I was polite, but I said, ‘I’ll wait.’ I had nothing else to do, let’s face it!
So eventually he saw me and he said, "Well look — the only thing we have is this little copy-editor job, and you rip script for the six o’clock news and write copy for international stories." So I said great, and that evolved to trying me out on radio, so I did Saturday and Sunday morning radio. And as I said, I had a lot of other part-time jobs because I couldn’t get a full-time job in TV. So I was working on all kinds of other things to try to make enough money to pay the rent. Then eventually it all came together and I was given a job. I think it took me seven years, though.
How did you feel when you were offered the job to replace someone with such a legacy as Lloyd Robertson?
It was overwhelming on one level because Lloyd Robertson wasn’t just the anchor on "CTV National News" for so long, he really is a Canadian icon. And I felt honoured and ready. I was totally ready for the new challenge and Lloyd had been at my side from the beginning helping me, guiding me in any questions I has. Till this day, I just call him up. I’m very fortunate to have had this man, his knowledge and history, to help me as I started that new job. It’s been two-and-a-half years now and I love the new challenge. It’s just been better than I imagined — more interesting, more challenging, obviously more time-consuming, but I just love the job so I don’t think of it as work.
Would you say that would be your biggest accomplishment? You were named Best News Anchor at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. So what would you say your biggest accomplishment as a journalist has been so far?
I think the biggest accomplishment for journalists is when your journalism forces change, forces awareness. And I’m always excited, when I was out in the field on a regular basis, if whatever I covered forced somebody to sit up and take notice.
I think the one story I am most proud of, even though it has a tragic end, was one time in Afghanistan. This little boy with a cancerous tumour on his chin, he came to the base where I was with Canadian soldiers. And we told this boy’s story and Canadians were unbelievable. I’ll never forget this. Saturday night this story airs and the phones in the newsroom back in Canada are ringing off the hook, people wanting to do something for this little boy, donate money, something, anything.
And ultimately a Calgary church took control of this as a fundraising effort and we got that little boy to a hospital in Pakistan. Tragically, he was too far gone, but at least I know that he died in a clean, peaceful environment, and that gives me a lot of — I don’t know — calm or something, to know that we were able to bring civility to this beautiful boy in his last days.
But that’s the power of journalism — when you tell a story and people react. Whether it’s exposing government abuse like we’ve done with the Senate story this year, these are the greatest accomplishments of any journalist. Stepping away from the podium, putting away the press release and just old-fashioned journalism. Find a story, dig it up and tell it — truthfully!
That’s really amazing! Now I need to ask you, what’s the difference between covering a story such as the one about the little boy in Afghanistan or something tragic like Hurricane Katrina, and reporting on something like the Royal Wedding?
Well, it’s joyous and beautiful to be a witness to royal weddings or royal births or even royal funerals, to be honest. These are massive world events. We were at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December in South Africa and even though this legend, who was my hero — he had been my whole life — had died. Witnessing, on the streets, people dancing in joy and crying in joy, that lifts you as a person. And again I go back to the fact that I just feel privileged having witnessed so many amazing world events — joyous and painful. It really keeps you humble and compassionate and I think compassion is the missing link these days in a lot of the world. I look at Twitter and I often shake my head and think, ‘Where is this going?’ There is so much vitriol and anonymous cruelty.
I was watching your show a while back on which there was a story on abused baby calves. And it just brought me to tears. I want to report on hard news because I think there are stories that need to be told, but I just couldn’t help but break down.
Well, that happens to me, too. When I was reading articles about the school kids lost in the South Korean ferry, you’re not human if this doesn’t bring tears. Whether it is animals or the elderly or these young people, I would say to any journalist it would be unfortunate it they lost their humanity, because that is important and critical in telling any story.
At the same time, you for sure have to curb your emotions. Because this isn’t about you or your emotions. But when I am writing something, I am always trying to imagine myself in the shoes of both sides, because every story has two at least. And yeah, you don’t want to be some phoney emotional bag of drool, you want to be real, and you want to be authentic to whatever this story is.
I guess there are definitely times I feel I have to curb it, because using the Korean ferry story as an example, that it just breaks my heart. Every little kid who obeyed the rules is dead. Every kid who defied the rules is alive. So what do you do about that? You’re human. You can’t just read all this and be so desensitized that it doesn’t affect you.
What’s the difference between writing a story on a foreign issue compared to writing a story about an issue in Canada?
It doesn’t matter if you are on Canadian soil or foreign soil, a story is a story. It’s your approach that matters, and always the best approach is to find the nub, to find the humans — the humanity — in the story so that other people are going to read it and relate to it. If you write something that doesn’t resonate, then you may as well not have written it.
Everywhere you look, there is a story that someone doesn’t know. I don’t think it matters where you are. Obviously when you are in Afghanistan or Iraq or the Middle East, you need to have cultural sensitivity. There are many, many places I have been in the world, where — Japan is a good example — you have to be very aware of the culture you are in. You still want to get to the story and you still have to push to get it, and as a woman it is certainly more challenging. You are just aware of the cultural sensitivities and you try to work within the rules and still get your story.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 21, 2014