Allies anchor Arsenault
Adrienne Arsenault, BA’90, MA’91, LLD’13, on comradery, fake news and stories that matter
By Keri Ferguson
Adrienne Arsenault has never been in it alone.
Whether sharing The National anchor desk with three other hosts, or as part of a crew covering stories from the four corners of the globe, a strong sense of comradery has helped her get – and get through – the tougher stories she’s faced as one of the country’s top correspondents.
“For me, the beauty of what we do is that we do it in teams. I love, love, love to write, but I would not have been very good in print.
“You talk stuff out on the road. These people I go out with – the shooters and the producers – I think of them as my brothers and sisters. I would do anything for them. We know all each other’s secrets – blood types, medications, when you need to eat, when you really shouldn’t be eating, how much sleep you need. We know everything about each other. A lot of that enables you to be able to look at somebody and say, ‘Hey, are you okay? What part of that got to you?’”
Hired as an editorial assistant for The National – after getting lost on her way to an interview with As It Hap-pens – Arsenault, BA’90, MA’91, LLD’13, has risen to become an award-winning senior correspondent and one of four anchors who replaced veteran newscaster Peter Mansbridge, LLD’08, in 2017.
Hosting CBC’s flagship newscast was never her driver. In fact, she was “thunderstruck” when Editor-in-Chief (and fellow Western grad) Jennifer McGuire, BSc’85 (Biology), asked if she’d consider having her name put forward.
“We talked about how I would never stop being a reporter first. As long as that was OK, then what crazy per-son would say ‘no’?”
Two weeks later while on holidays, Arsenault maneuvered her kayak to receive a cell signal and word she’d been chosen to host a revamped newscast, alongside Rosemary Barton, Andrew Chang and Ian Hanomansing.
Arsenault had worked with Hanomansing before when she was as a researcher and then reporter at CBC Vancouver. In an even earlier encounter, working an overnight shift in Toronto in 1992, the young editorial assistant answered a call from Hanomansing from a phone booth in L.A., as riots erupted under the not guilty verdict delivered in the death of Rodney King.
“This was all before smartphones,” Arsenault laughed. “I had an atlas out and remember saying, ‘OK, it seems to be at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, and you’re where?’ Ian was so kind and gracious to me. He knew I was just some kid on the other end of the phone.”
From Hanomansing’s perspective, that ‘kid’ “was so smart, and instantly understood what we needed. One of the things she said to us was, ‘I’ll be on the other end of the phone for you all night.’ That’s Adrienne,” he explained.
A senior correspondent for The National since 1999, Arsenault has covered some of the biggest breaking and investigative stories in Canada and around the world, earning several Gemini and Canadian Screen Awards, and an International Emmy for her coverage of the Ebola crisis in 2015.
With the virus sweeping Monrovia, the West African capital of Liberia, the CBC was one of few networks will-ing to go. Arsenault was all in. Before departing, a clinical disease specialist helped her, producer Stephanie Jenzer and videographer Jean-François Bisson understand the course and symptoms of the disease, and how to avoid infection.
For eight days, they shared one room, eating packaged rations, vigilantly wearing gloves and bleaching down the handles of their vehicle, cameras and phones. Maintaining a physical distance to keep safe from infected fluids was “counter-intuitive,” Arsenault said.
“You want to be close enough to people so you can have an intimate conversation and feel like you’re with them. They need that, too. The entire country of Liberia is such a warm place – an embrace and hug in their culture is such a big deal. But people weren’t touching each other – not even a fist-bump.”
Also striking, was the silence.
“A lot of disasters – whether it is conflict or a natural or man-made disaster – they are loud, chaotic. There’s a cacophony, sometimes, of agony and fear. But this felt like a silent disaster. People were so sick; they were so quiet and so slow. It was strange to be in a place where you couldn’t see the enemy, but you could see its de-struction everywhere.”
An outbreak of another kind awaited their return home. A wave of ‘fear-bola’ spreading south of the border had sparked some irrational apprehension and negative comments in Canada, painting Arsenault and her team as a potential risk to public health.
Though they were never exposed to or in contact with infected fluids, and recorded and reported their tem-peratures twice a day, these fears kicked “an abundance of caution” into play.
“We knew the perception of danger and risk. We didn’t want to enflame anybody’s panic. We could see it was happening in the United States. They were hysterical. We did not need that to happen here, even though we knew we had been careful and lucky and had not been exposed.”
For 21 days, the trio worked in a condo across from the CBC and away from their homes, filing stories “from the confines of our little place – going crazy.”
“I don’t like to be penned in,” Arsenault added.
She has held posts in Washington, D.C., Jerusalem and the United Kingdom, and reported from a long list of countries including Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Syria, where she packed syringes and special gauze for arterial wounds while shooting the award-winning Ruins of Raqqa.
Despite the risks and precautions, she “absolutely has a crush” on a job that puts her in places others would not venture.
“I welcome being pushed and challenged,” she explained. “I want to feel sharp and acute all the time. I’m unnerved by the concept of comfort in my work.”
Good thing, since the anchor desk came with somewhat of a hot seat when The National relaunched in No-vember 2017. The concept of replacing one host with four – part of a larger format change to keep pace with how a broader audience consumes its news – brought mixed reaction from core viewers and “relentless” scru-tiny from other media.
“For sure, we felt – and feel – huge pressure. We feel a responsibility. To the audience. To each other. To our beautiful team. These are the nicest people and they care so damn much. These are people who, when something happens, and they’re on their days off, they come in anyway. They stay late; they come in early. We feel a responsibility to them, too.”
Packaging content to work across a variety of digital platforms and offering fewer stories with more in-depth analysis beyond headlines that are a constant click away, is not a radical approach.
“But, we’re held to a different standard – as we should be as the public broadcaster. We take that on, that’s OK. People have every right to ask questions and to push.”
In a world where ‘fake news’ is both a slur and a reality, Arsenault believes “there’s a lot we can do, not just with adults, but in schools, reteaching media literacy, urging people to take the time to figure out where they are getting their information, asking questions about sourcing, asking questions about accountability and real-izing that it is on them as much as it is on us.”
She loves interacting with viewers on social media, taking their questions, learning what matters most in their daily lives and pushing for answers – from panelists to politicians – on their behalf. “It feels like a service and the right thing to do.”
“I believe strongly in public broadcasting as a duty to go and do stories that aren’t always the most popular or ratings-driven – but instead matter. They matter sometimes to people in this country who don’t have the same voice and the same exposure. So damn it, we’re going to do it.
“People deserve better than just getting a summary of what they may already know at the end of the day. That’s why we keep pushing. We’re all on this ride together that’s for sure.”
Photography for story by Geoff Robins
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Alumni Gazette