Adrienne Arsenault and the importance of true stories

Adrienne Arsenault, Co-host of CBC’s The National and long-time foreign correspondent, keeps her passport in her knapsack. “It’s always with me,” she says. Even on a video call from the basement of the CBC in a world where international travel has been frozen for a year, her passport is tucked into her bag, waiting.

Old habits die hard, but some habits—like an experienced foreign correspondent keeping her passport on her at all times—may not die at all. Arsenault has reported for the CBC from all over the world, from Libya to Sri Lanka to Iran, and is a familiar face on many Canadian televisions as a result.

Arsenault is the second guest speaker in Her-Spective, and appeared on March 4th. The experienced journalist and foreign correspondent spoke on the nature of pandemics; the changing world of technology, truth, and information; and the future of journalism.

Invest Ottawa and Syntax Strategic are co-presenting Her-Spective: a weeklong interview series with five leading female journalists, showcasing the extraordinary voices of women in Canadian media. Hosted by Catherine Clark, these engaging conversations give insight into the reality of covering the generation-defining events of 2020 and beyond.

On generation-defining events, it is difficult to find one larger than COVID-19. But COVID-19 is not Arsenault’s first pandemic, and as such she watched it unfold from a unique perspective. Arsenault reported on the Ebola epidemic from the capital of Liberia in 2014. She describes the horror of the “unseen enemy,” something unknown to her and much of the rest of the world then, but now a familiar experience. Though ebola is markedly different than COVID-19 in modes of transmissions (through bodily fluid, not respiratory droplets) and rates of severe illness, the effect on the world Arsenault witnessed was similar.

“I couldn’t get over the fact that if you love someone enough to wipe the sweat from their brow when they’re sick, ebola was coming for you.” She says. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it… the cruelty of it.”

But the other extraordinary element, beyond the horror, was the importance of the story she and her team were telling: they were “humbled and horrified” to see how happy the people they spoke with were that their stories were being told around the world.

After covering ebola, Arsenault felt like she saw what was coming last March. What she did not anticipate were the levels of mis- and disinformation rampant in a digital world threatened by an invisible enemy. “There’s real danger there — [in] what we’re not talking about there,” she says. The prevalence of disinformation places those who work in truth-telling—journalists—in dangerous positions. More journalists have been arrested worldwide last year than any previously, she says. According to her, it’s all the more reason to fight to protect journalists around the world.

Furthermore, she hopes the recognition of the importance of truth and those who tell it will spur the future of journalism and young journalists everywhere. “I hope this spawns a generation of people who say ‘yep I’m going to step up’ and shine a lot of lights in the world.”

Though technology has contributed to the fading of truth, it is also incredibly, and increasingly, important for the ability to tell these true stories: Arsenault calls technology “both tyrannical and very giving.” The new media forms allow an incredible variety of platforms to tell stories on, and thus expand the range of stories told. “For all the banana-rama things about the CBC” she says, “I have the capacity to let the story tell me what platform it needs.”

Before the worlds of podcasts, streaming, social media, and other web-based platforms, any important story received 1:45 minutes of newscast. “Where did the rest of the story go?” Aresenault would ask. With the possibilities afforded by the internet, there is a place and audience for ever story in its entirety. “I feel healthier and healthier when I’m doing a story that’s really important” she says, “and the more platforms I can do… I feel more solid in my heart and in my head.”

In such a quickly shifting world, Arsenault is grateful for the experiences afforded and the stories she has been able to both tell and be a part of.

“I get to smell the world, and go into peoples homes and stand with them and listen to them, and I’m grateful for every horrible experience I’ve had, and every wonderful one I’ve had.” She says. “I need all those experiences to make me who I am.”

The pandemic has put a strong damper on international travel and thus the kind of journalism Arsenault is, at this point in her career, an institution in. But it will not last forever, and when it is over, she will head into the world once more. Arsenault knows exactly what that will feel like: “Me, with my passport, busting through the walls.”

There is still time to sign up for the Monday, March 8th interview with Farah Nasser, one of Toronto's most recognizable faces in news. Registered here.