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The former Winnipeg farm girl will appear Global’s current affairs program 16x9 as part of a one-hour documentary about dementia. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The former Winnipeg farm girl will appear Global’s current affairs program 16x9 as part of a one-hour documentary about dementia. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Renowned journalist Dawna Friesen shares her story behind the camera Add to ...

As the anchor and executive of the Global National team, Dawna Friesen does her best to uphold the definition of “newsworthy.” This week she will appear Global’s current affairs program 16x9 as part of a one-hour documentary about dementia (both of Friesen’s parents live with the disease). Here, the former Winnipeg farm girl shares some of the secrets of her success – including why tractor skills are more versatile than you might imagine.

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The news shouldn’t have Bieber Fever

I am a newsperson at heart – that’s my background, that’s what I care about. I’m always going to favour the news story over the Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, but it can be difficult to draw a clear line. Justin Bieber is a huge Canadian cultural figure, so you can certainly argue that if he is going off the rails, that’s news. You just don’t want to feel that the important stories are being sacrificed for fluff of sensationalism. Of course the biggest example of this is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Every newsroom in Canada has had their debates – how far do you go? How much do you cover? Does every incident and every new video get coverage? You try to set a bar and you try to stick to a standard, but it’s a challenge it that there are no hard and fast rules to follow. It becomes a matter of news instinct. I think I have that and it has served me pretty well.

Let your subject be the star

When I was hired by Global, they asked me for some of the work I did at NBC. I put together a collection of some of my best work. They said, ‘Yeah, this is great, but we want to see you.’ This was difficult because I’m not the kind of reporter who puts myself into the story. My stories were about the people of Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s what journalism was when I was coming up. I didn’t get into this business to be the centre of attention, but the culture has changed quite a bit. Especially in the United States, you have a lot of celebrity journalists where their personality is a huge part of the story. I’ve come around a little bit, but I still feel very strongly that the characters in the story are the focus. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but I’m proud of that.

The wisdom of Brian Williams

I really admire Brian Williams as an anchor. When he first took over for Tom Brokaw there was a lot of talk – he was a cable news guy, maybe a lightweight, didn’t have the gravitas. Some people thought it wasn’t going to work, but you know what? It has worked. He has embraced the role of being the likable guy. He delivers the news in a way that feels like you could be chatting with him at the pub. That’s what I strive for, but it’s hard: You’re sitting in a studio by yourself. How do you show you personality, let viewers know that you care about an issue without crossing the line? I have crossed it before. One time I was reporting on fighting in hockey. I said something like, ‘How could I explain to my young son that it’s a crime to beat someone up on the street, but perfectly fine to have grown men punch each other’s lights out on the ice in the NHL?’ It triggered a reaction on both sides. In retrospect, I should have kept my views to myself, or expressed them on another platform, such as Twitter.

Never mind the haters

Women are held to a different standard in terms of appearance and grooming. It’s every little thing: Why did she part her hair that way today? Why is she wearing her glasses? It drives me nuts. It’s the worst part of the job and I really do my best to tune it out. My advice to women starting out is to just be yourself and do the work. I had a funny experience early in my career. I was applying for a job at a TV station and the news director told me I was never going to make it because of my lisp. I didn’t even realize that I had a lisp, so it was quite shocking, but this was an authority figure, so it’s hard not to take the feedback to heart. She told me that I could fix it by using nail scissors to snip the piece of skin under my tongue. I almost did it – I went home and stood in front of the mirror with the scissors, but ultimately I didn’t. I couldn’t! And of course, now I’m so glad that I didn’t follow the advice.

There is no such thing as a useless skill

I try to never miss out on an opportunity to pick up a new skill … Even if it has nothing to do with your regular career, you just never know. I grew up on a farm and when I was six my dad taught me to drive the tractor. He put blocks on the pedals so I could reach them. From there I learned to drive our combine and grain trucks. I really value that my dad didn’t have this idea that driving tractors was for boys. I had so much fun, and the skills really came in handy so many years later when I found myself driving an armoured vehicle in Israel during the intifada. You never know when those seemingly random skills are going to serve you.

The Unspooling Mind airs April 26 at 7 p.m.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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