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Scrolling, clicking, refreshing; all of these actions might allow you quick and constant access to the news – but how do they make you feel? There’s a reason that households always used to gather around the TV to watch the evening bulletin; it meant more than simply being kept informed. It was a ritual of cohesion, between themselves and with the nation at large. Sure, news isn’t always uplifting but hearing it delivered by a familiar face and a human voice, with all of the emotion and empathy that brings, can make all the difference to how it’s received. The best TV news anchors come to represent truth and accuracy. After all, trusting someone is always easier when they’re looking right at you – and saying it straight. Here are three presenters doing just that and riding high in the ratings as a result.


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1.

The daring disrupter

Lee So Jeong, South Korea

News channel: kbs
Show: kbs News 9
Time in current role: 18 months

Lee So Jeong is the face of South Korea’s most-watched news show, airing every weeknight at 21.00 on public broadcaster kbs. She is also the first woman to occupy the main anchor seat on South Korean network television. Her appointment in late 2019 was a surprise for a country that has some catching up to do in matters of gender equality. But Lee says that she was more surprised the milestone “hadn’t been reached sooner”.

“The responsibility of representing female broadcast journalists as a group weighs heavily,” she says. “If I make a mistake, it can set us all back.”

Despite the pressure, Lee’s charisma and delivery have drawn a positive reaction: her News 9 bulletin is leading its closest rival in the ratings by more than five percentage points. It helps that she has long been a respected journalist at the channel. She has won national awards, most famously after reporting on the ground from Mexico’s Chiapas conflict in 2003, securing an exclusive interview with Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. Such ambitious world news reporting was very rare for South Korea at the time. “When I am in the field, I am a tough cookie,” says Lee. “The biggest lesson for me was that reporters are nothing if we don’t hit the field and dig at the truth first-hand.”

That dedication has remained despite her change of role. “The most important part of the job is the same: confirmation of truth, being a watchdog,” she says. “I listen to the reporters on the scene and comb through supporting data. I have to see it with my own eyes. I call up the experts.”

For kbs to remain on top of the media scrum, Lee believes that the network needs to stay true to a set of principles. “The cardinal rule of news is impartiality,” she says. “If you sprinkle in adjectives and adverbs, it can be more fun to watch and ratings might rise temporarily but we have to keep away from that. We need to provide context, plus a forum for discussion and reconsideration. It’s crucial that we give the audience the sense that this is ‘our news’ as a community, with a shared mission of looking for solutions for our shared problems. That’s the right way forward.” 

And finally: Lee recently became part of the news cycle herself. In a break from the accepted style of fronting the bulletin, she used the programme to call for respectful and dignifed treatment of a high-profile victim of sexual harassment.


2.

The national treasure

Matti Rönkä, Finland

News channel: Yle
Show: Yle Uutiset
Time presenting: 20 years

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It’s just past 20.00 in the Mediatalo news centre and Matti Rönkä is preparing for the evening’s news bulletin. He checks his lapel microphone with the control room and warms up his voice. Everything on the prompter looks fine but Rönkä has printed his script just in case there’s a technical glitch. There’s no room for mishaps as about 800,000 Finns (one in four of the country’s adults) will tune in to watch at 20.30 on the dot.

Rönkä hits television screens several times a week and is the country’s most recognisable and trusted news anchor. In a world where newspapers and broadcasters grapple with digitalisation, fiery online pundits and the onslaught of fake news, Finnish public broadcaster Yle’s evening news bulletin Yle Uutiset has weathered the storm. The show is widely considered to be the country’s most dependable news source and is also the most-watched programme on Finnish television. As the show’s respected host, Rönkä embodies that assurance.

“To be a good news anchor you first need to be a good journalist,” says Rönkä when the broadcast is over. “You need to know what is news and what is not. But you also need screen presence that exudes calmness, a clear vocal delivery and the ability to stay calm under pressure.”

News anchors play a pivotal role in ensuring that the news reaches its audience. At Yle, reporters and correspondents gather information, edit video packages and type up shorter news flashes. But the anchor is the link between them and the viewers. “I put a lot of effort into the language by working with our reporters to get the phrasing just right,” says Rönkä, who is also an accomplished author.

Rönkä has been presenting the bulletin for more than 20 years. Before that, he worked as a reporter and as an editor. “I am what some would call an old-school traditional journalist,” he says. “I believe that there is something called the objective truth and that we as journalists should strive to uncover it. Being a journalist is honourable work that plays a key role in how societies and democracies function.” But he is aware that this view is increasingly being challenged and that more and more people have started to look for news sources that suit their own ideology. “The attacks against us have increased in recent years but we must remain unfazed. Our job is to present the facts and we cannot be afraid of the reaction that they elicit.”

“To be a good news anchor you first need to be a good journalist. You need to know what is news and what is not”

In Finland, where citizens and corporations pay a mandatory Yle-tax as opposed to a licence fee, a public broadcasting service is still regarded as a key public utility, much like education or healthcare. The nation has also introduced media literacy into the national curriculum.

“Media is in flux but, in one form or another, anchors such as myself will always deliver news to the public,” says Rönkä. As the high viewing numbers attest, watching Uutiset represents more than just listening to the news for many Finns; it’s an important daily ritual. “We are a part of the public’s lives. Through us they experience moments of national trauma and triumph. The older I get the more aware I am of the responsibility that this role entails.” 

And finally: Rönkä is tasked with delivering the official results of the Finnish election to the nation, often in the studio with the party leaders looking on anxiously. The presenter is proud to play his part in the functioning of the country’s democracy.


3.

The network draw

Dana Bash, USA

News channel: cnn
Show: State of the Union
Time in current role: One year

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Growing up, Dana Bash had little desire to be a journalist, despite her father’s career at abc. “I was a rebellious kid and whatever my parents did I wanted to do the opposite,” she says. Things changed when she went to study in Washington and got “swept up” in the politics of the Hill. In the end, she decided to stop fighting what was in her dna – her journalistic path had been forged.

Nonetheless, Bash’s trajectory is unusual in television. The cnn anchor, chief political correspondent and wearer of various broadcasting hats has never worked anywhere else. Starting out at cnn as a freelancer and landing a full-time graduate gig at the age of 22, Bash undertook shifts in the now-defunct tape room before working her way up the production ranks; she recently celebrated her 28th year at the channel. “cnn is embedded in me and it always will be, no matter where I go or what happens in my life,” she says.

During a tumultuous past few years in Washington, Bash has been a quick-witted, reassuring presence, making sense of the nonsensical and eschewing the ratings-chasing shout-fests into which cable news sometimes descends. And while she admits that the days of people gathering around a TV set that’s emitting the holy glow of cbs’s Walter Cronkite are long gone, she believes she still has an important role to play. “Because media are so fractured and there’s so much disinformation out there, those of us who are committed to truth and facts have a greater responsibility,” she says.

It’s clear that Bash is referencing one phenomenon in particular – Trumpism – and “the big lie”, as she calls it, that was the attempt to deny last year’s election result. But she pushes back against the notion that cnn became too partisan during the previous administration. She believes that, when checking facts, cnn often had to call out the sitting president as being wrong; in Republican camps that was – and still is – perceived as partisan.

“Because there’s so much disinformation out there, those of us who are committed to truth and facts have a greater responsibility”

For those expecting a straight delivery of the news, US cable’s proclivity for opinionated anchors might take some adjustment. But Bash says that she still approaches her job as though she was a reporter – and that means using sources. The conclusions she reaches, she says, are “reported analysis” rather than personal opinion. Sometimes she also knows how to cut to the chase, as she did following the first Biden-Trump presidential debate in September 2020. After her colleague Jake Tapper referred to the sparring as “a hot mess, inside a dumpster, inside a train wreck,” Bash parried with, “I’m going to say it like it is: that was a shit show.” The clip ended up going viral. Does she regret her choice of words? “I don’t regret it because there are times when you have to say what the audience is feeling,” she says.

Arguably the pinnacle of Bash’s career so far was being named co-anchor of Sunday politics show State of the Union at the start of this year, joining Tapper in the interviewer seat. She calls the nomination a “full-circle moment” as she once worked as a producer on the show’s forerunner. Every Sunday at breakfast time, she tackles the week’s hot-button issues, asking probing questions of everyone from secretary of state Antony Blinken to the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who she grilled about the state’s slow vaccination rate.

Bash recognises that the “speed, pace and pressure” on a cable channel such as cnn is very real. But she is also honest enough to counter that she gets an adrenaline buzz out of it and she wouldn’t be there now if she didn’t. She also says that she’s learned how to switch off from the news when she needs to, thanks to her 10-year-old son, whose father, John King – Bash’s ex-husband – is another cnn anchor.

But have things changed since Donald Trump left the White House and “the bouncing ball of crazy”, as she refers to him, stopped bouncing? Is covering Joe Biden a little bit boring? “It feels normal,” she says. “And no matter who it is and what it is, I’ll take it. And by ‘normal’ I mean that we’re now covering the issues, such as infrastructure, police reform, paid family leave.”

The daily news agenda might no longer be spiralling out of control but that doesn’t mean that cnn is working its talent any less hard – and Bash’s downtime seems minimal. On top of the Sunday show and regular studio analysis, there are forays into podcasts and documentaries about influential Washington women. The latter chimes with Bash, who talks about the encouraging number of women now involved in TV news. She says that she helps nurture this “sisterhood” through mentorship. “Being a woman in TV news is still a different thing than being a man,” she says. “There are different perceptions, expectations and challenges.” And Bash is certainly setting an example when it comes to conquering them.

And finally: Bash is part of cnn’s Emmy award-winning election-night team. In 2019 she won the National Press Foundation’s Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism; the judges praised her “reporting excellence and fairness”.

Photographer: Jun Michael Park, Ernest Protasiewicz, Jared Soares

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