‘It’s OK to not be OK right now.’ TV anchors are setting aside the stoicism and getting personal.

Anchors like CNN’s Brian Stelter and WFLA-TV’s Keith Cates have offered deeply personal essays and, with them, hope and human connection.

May 13, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

There are times when the news shakes us like a terrier with a rag doll: war and terrorism, earthquakes and wildfires, and now recession and pandemic. At such times, TV news anchors can choose to fulfill their traditional roles, or, in some cases, take their responsibilities a step beyond.

With a combination of network and cable news, we have anchors galore, whose standard responsibilities we understand. These include managing editor, news deliverer, occasional field reporter, upholder of standards and a public presence — a face of the network.

That’s crucial daily journalism. But there are moments and events that transcend the routine. We are living through one of them. When the seas are high and lives are in danger, the anchor can step into these roles:

Civic explainer: In this role the anchor takes information that is particularly complex — say, the science behind the COVID-19 pandemic, and helps us make sense of it, in a way that allows members of the public to avoid panic and take responsible action.

Public consoler: Usually we can depend upon public officials to help us through a tragedy. The performance of such leaders in this crisis has been uneven at best. Church leaders offer prayers and consolation, to be sure, but now they must do so virtually. This vacuum leaves space for the anchor, who can “switch hats” for a moment, look the audience straight in the eye and offer words of compassion and encouragement.

One of us: To console the public, the consoler must demonstrate that he or she needs consolation. Here the journalist is no longer limited to the social distancing of “third person” reporting. To console, there must be an “I” and “you” — and in the end a “we” and “us.” When Hurricane Andrew ripped apart South Florida, the Miami Herald ran this headline: “We need help.” All of us.

It’s OK not to be OK

To illustrate this special work — and the reaction of audiences to it — I have chosen two different kinds of anchors. One is Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s hourlong Sunday show “Reliable Sources,” featuring news and commentary about the news media.

The other is Keith Cate, the local anchor I watch most often. He and his team present the news at 6 p.m. from WFLA-TV, the NBC affiliate for the Tampa Bay area. His show leads into Lester Holt and “NBC Nightly News.” Promotions describe Holt as “America’s most trusted anchor.”

Many anchors, including Holt, close their reports with something brief and uplifting, adding the occasional personal comment. Nothing new about that. What feels different is the personal essay, sometimes a minute or two offered as something special to the audience, a kind of miniature valediction. Something noticeably different.

That’s what happened at the end of the April 19 edition of “Reliable Sources.” Something different from Brian Stelter, almost 700 words of difference. Here’s what he said:

But let me take a couple of minutes here before the end of the hour to talk about what a lot of us are going through. It’s OK to not be OK right now. That’s the main thing I want to say to everyone watching. All of us are grieving whether we sense it or not.

All of us have lost something in the past few weeks. Some have suffered the ultimate loss of a father or mother or spouse or relative. Others have lost livelihoods. They’ve lost access to family and friends. Just losing the rhythms and routines that make life what it is, is that profound loss. We’re all grieving.

But I have to admit to you, I had tried to bottle it all up. I guess I was trying to be stoic for my wife and kids. It wasn’t until this Friday night that I hit a wall. I was supposed to be finishing my nightly newsletter that I mentioned earlier, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get it done.

I was so gutted by the death toll. I was so angry about the ignorance in Washington. I was so worried about family members and friends who are at risk of losing their jobs or who have already lost their jobs. It was that mix of emotions that many of you also feel. And that’s when the tears came. We don’t talk about this on TV much. I think we should change that. I think we should talk about this.

Almost everybody is experiencing either isolation or stress or anxiety or other emotions as a result of this crisis. Look, let’s remember, we’ve never lived through something quite like this. We have nothing to compare this with, so it can be incredibly alarming. It can be incredibly depressing.

Media can help. Making media can help, even if it’s just posted on Instagram or taking pictures or writing, journaling, messaging others, talking with others, FaceTiming. But the emotions are real for everybody. They’re a big part of the story.

For me, a good night’s sleep worked wonders. On Saturday morning, I picked up where I left off and sent out the newsletter and wrote about this and the reactions were extraordinary. The outpouring of reactions was extraordinary. I’m still getting hundreds of e-mails from readers about this. And that’s why I hope you can relate to this as well.

I mean, yes, there were — there were some messages from guys trying to do that performative masculinity thing, saying that men shouldn’t cry or talk about crying. But most people were so kind and so — they related to this.

Here’s what Melissa wrote to me on Twitter. She said, “It’s OK to not be OK right now.” And here’s another post that says “it’s important to recognize the need to grieve what we’ve lost and to acknowledge anxiety and uncertainty over the way forward.” So my message to you is, when someone asks you if you’re OK, right now, tell the truth. It’s OK to not be OK.

I mean, 25 years ago today was the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And then President Clinton went to Oklahoma City and said, if anybody thinks that Americans are mostly mean and selfish, they ought to come to Oklahoma. If anybody thinks Americans have lost the capacity for love, and caring, and courage, they ought to come to Oklahoma.

That’s true now for every state, every community. It’s true all around the world. Most people are good and want to help and there is help available. Here’s the number for the Crisis Text Line. You can text the word home to 741741. There’s also the disaster distress hotline, the helpline. We will put that number up as well.

We’re all going to get through this together. You can even e-mail me. My email is bselter@gmail.com. Reach put to me but let’s be honest about our emotions, talk through it and recognize it’s OK to not be OK.

I messaged Stelter to ask him about his decision to share this message with his national audience, and also asked for more information about the reaction he received. You can’t have a bigger focus group than your entire national audience.

Here’s his email:

My inbox exploded when I said it’s OK to not be OK. I have never experienced anything like this. Two-plus weeks later, I’m still getting emails and tweets about the segment.

I received thousands of messages in the first 24 hours after the broadcast. And then I stopped keeping track of the number of messages.

The theme of the messages: People appreciated hearing someone on the other side of the TV expressing what they’re feeling.

“News” is often about who shows up at a rally or who speaks at an event, but news as we all experience it often happens more privately, out of reach of assignment editors and the Twittersphere.

Televised essays are one imperfect but important way to get closer to the truth. To reflect what viewers are thinking and feeling and wondering. To reflect their fears and hopes and concerns and questions back to them.

A weekly message from your anchor

Two weeks before Stelter’s essay, I noticed that my local anchor, Keith Cate, was trying something different. At the end of his broadcast on April 4, he offered a brief reflection titled “We Made It to Friday.” Here it is:

Well, we made it to Friday and that’s saying something these days.

Like you, we here at News Channel 8 get up each morning wondering what the day will bring. And lately, it’s been a steady drumbeat of more coronavirus cases, more deaths, more executive orders, restrictions, and cancellations.

Maybe you’ve found yourself not only staying at home, but at home without a job or worse yet, at home in bad health or with a family member who’s not well. These are unsettling days. This week, we’ve had to report frightening predictions from health experts who say it’s going to get worse before it gets better, that we haven’t reached the peak in COVID-19 cases yet, maybe not for another two weeks.

But consider this, the same experts who foresee mass casualties also see a light at the end of the tunnel. They believe we’ll get through this. Things will get better. Our job is to hang in there, wash our hands, keep a safe distance from one another, avoid crowds, and take care of ourselves.

I see hopeful signs. Our crews are in the field day and night working hard to bring you stories about people in Tampa Bay doing good for others. Health professionals and first responders making sacrifices. Teachers working on-line, parents and grandparents caring for children who no longer have schools to attend, scientists working on a vaccine, businesses bending over backwards to provide paychecks to their employees. We applaud all of their efforts, your efforts.

Yes, we made it to Friday. And we’ll make it to next Friday and the Friday after that. Our remarkable history of overcoming obstacles proves it. So, keep the faith, stay positive, and stay safe this weekend.

What works for me in this statement is its movement from fear and loss to hope and promise. The first half summarizes the negative news of the week, and what follows contains not just pats on our back, but a reminder of how the community can act to protect itself.

This statement went over so well with the audience that Cate created others like it on subsequent Fridays, an end-of-the-week booster shot that became known as Cate’s Corner. Here’s Cate on the reaction:

I never really planned on doing a weekly commentary during the pandemic. It just sort of happened. The last week of March … going into April was a real downer, filled with scary headlines about what was coming. I felt that so much gloom and doom was not the way I wanted to end the week.

So, on that Friday night at eleven o’clock I decided to end the newscast by saying something positive. I wanted to offer perspective coupled with a word of encouragement.

The viewer response was overwhelming. I had no plans to continue, but by the end of the following week I was back with a few more thoughts. I’m not sure how long I will continue to end the Friday night newscast this way. It could be when the coronavirus crisis stops dominating the news or when viewers grow weary of my ramblings. I’m not sure which will happen first.

Cate posts all of his scripts on his Facebook page.

Going back to ancient times, there have been storytellers offering their version of the news of the day. This person plays a key cultural role. In Anglo-Saxon England, the person, a poet, was called a “scop,” or shaper. He would tell stories of suffering and violence, but also of heroism and restoration.

We still need that. And although the anchor no longer has the status or audience of a Murrow or Cronkite, he or she still plays a crucial role.

Perhaps what Stelter and Cate have discovered about the audience for news is something that should stay with us beyond the effects of the pandemic. Perhaps the message from readers and viewers is “You don’t always have to act like a bigshot. Now and then remind us that you are one of us.”

In the spirit of this essay, let me close with a personal note. I learned in a Catholic college that the anchor was a symbol of hope. In fact, the State of Rhode Island, where I went to school, has as its official symbol and anchor with the word hope beneath it. I have that symbol tattooed on my right shoulder. An anchor, and the word hope.

Get it, all you anchors out there? We need you to give us the news, but also some hope.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.