Newsmakers


The Challenge Every Night: Surviving the TV News Business As a Woman

It’s a tough time to be a journalist.

What with the president branding us an “enemy of the American people,” the pressures of 24-hour, multi-platform coverage demands, and the perennial complaint of “late nights, long hours, low pay,” it’s a wonder anyone lasts. (OK, many don’t—witness the number of reporters-turned-PR-execs now driving nice cars.)

Take it up a notch and imagine being a female journalist—on TV. You’ve got the appearance thing, the aging thing, the ask-tough-questions-and-get-labeled-a-bitch thing, the underrepresentation (the latest Women’s Media Center report finds that men report 75 percent of television news and hold two-thirds of news directorships in TV and radio), and, sadly, the looming threat of harassment—sexual and otherwise.

In Southwest Florida, however, primetime local news is cemented by four long-serving female anchors—WINK’s Lois Thome, NBC2’s Kellie Burns, ABC7’s Krista Fogelsong and Fox4’s Amy Wegmann. Recently, they joined Gulfshore Life for a broad conversation about what it’s really like to be on TV (hint: not glamorous), the challenges facing the industry, and why they’ve stayed in Southwest Florida as their colleagues moved on to bigger markets or better-paying, less stressful lines of work. (Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

We’re all familiar with what you do at the anchor desk—what about your off-camera duties?

Krista Fogelsong, ABC7

Joined station: 2012 (previously worked at Fox4)

Birthplace: Hettinger, North Dakota

Education: Minot State University, bachelor’s in broadcasting

Family: Husband, Lance, and two dogs

Outside interest: All-inclusive vacations with her husband, teaching Piyo (cardio yoga) and Bootcamp five days a week, walking her dogs with her husband on Southwest Florida’s beaches, checking out area restaurants

KF: We are writing and reading constantly. Everyone thinks you just show up and read the news. At ABC, we’re writing all the promotions you see on the commercials before the news as soon as we get in. Then we have to go get ready and record them so they air in those hours before the newscasts. It’s very busy before we get to even sit down and read our scripts.

AW: I’ve noticed a big shift even in the past five years with social media. We’re not just anchoring a newscast. We’re required now—and we like doing it—to do Facebook Live and be on Twitter. There’s also the managerial aspects to it. For me, at Fox, I help the reporters a lot, tailoring the writing, or being a second set of eyes in overseeing stories.

KB: I don’t feel like I’m a natural on TV, so I have to read everything over and rewrite from the way I talk. I can’t read other people as I can read my writing. I feel like it’s kind of a dying (practice). We’re so focused on the quantity that the quality suffers a little bit. It makes me sad sometimes. I miss that crafting of a story, when you can work on one story a day and make the pictures beautiful. Now it’s just boom, boom, boom, get it on the air.

So the business has really changed?

LT: We do so much news now at WINK—there are shows where I haven’t seen a syllable of the show until I’m reading it on air. If I’m putting together a story for 4 (the 4 p.m. broadcast), and then I’m anchoring the 5, the 6 isn’t even near in bed by the time I’m on set, so I literally have to put all my trust into producers and writers that they have checked everything and double-checked everything. I used to be much more involved in the details. … I think when I started here, we did four and a half or five hours a day. We do 11 now.

KF: We used to not have computers at the desks. Now you’re on your computer. You’re checking Facebook. You’re checking Twitter…

KB: …You’re Googling. There was a fire in Miami a couple of nights ago, just before the 5 o’clock, just a tanker fire, but we were going to show live pictures. You’re talking and looking at the pictures and reading it off as you go.

KF: It’s a working set.

How do you verify information on the spot?

KF: Well, talking about social media, now there’s a danger of fake news. Now they even have a Web page that looks like a real news station. … It’s really hard. You have to triple-check every story that looks interesting.

KB: It’s a slippery slope. You have to be very careful. I would rather err on the side of total caution.

AW: With social media, people will repost (fake stories), and before you know it everyone is talking about it, but wait a minute, it’s from a totally bogus website.

LT: You know, it’s the pressure of having to be first on the air, beat everybody else, the competitiveness of it all, but really you have to always take a second, stop and ask yourself: “Are you sticking to your basic journalistic standards?” It’s very easy to lose your credibility. It’s very hard to get it back.

Kellie Burns, NBC4

Joined station: 1994

Birthplace: Endicott, New York

Education: State University of New York at Geneseo, bachelor’s in communications; bachelor’s in political science; minor in international relations

Family: Husband, Ed, stepdaughter and two children

Outside interests: boating, traveling, member of board of trustees for De LaSalle Academy

KB: I have a rule on my newscasts: I have to read over a script before it goes on air. There are too many mistakes that can happen and nobody knows, hey, that was my producer. It’s me. The buck stops here, and you can’t blame anybody else for anything. Take a breath—I don’t care if we’re the first; we have to get it right.

AW: I think (mobile technology) has changed TV news. It used to be that we were the reporters, and we were the anchors and we were the ones gathering news. Now, we really do rely on people in the community to report. They share video with us. We’re taking stuff from their social media sites. It’s like the community almost plays a part in reporting the news, where 10 years ago that never took place.

KF: Often the photographers are the first ones to get cut, but that’s where a lot of the stories came from, the visual element.

LT: The pitfall to that is you don’t know your source. How do you verify it in an immediate way? You can’t.

AW: I agree with that. The benefit, of course, is you have people all over Southwest Florida sharing stuff with you. If I know there is something happening on this corner in Bonita Springs, I’ll look up the closest gas station or Taco Bell and say, “Hey, can you go grab a picture for me or some video?” Nine out of 10 times they’ll say yes.

What are the biggest misperceptions about your job?

KB: That it’s glamorous.

KF: People think we’re just sitting there, relaxed, while people do our hair and makeup. Not true.

AW: I give myself 10 minutes (for makeup). On a good day.

KB: The biggest misperception is that there’s the liberal media out there, and we’re all sitting there talking or our bosses are telling us that we have to spin the news a certain way. We’re all just trying to report the news and do our best and keep the emotion out of it. There’s no spin machine out there.

KF: Whether you have a personal bias of a candidate, a party, an issue, you know we have our checks and balances to make sure a script is not leaning one way or another.

LT: There is so much editorial programming out there that is labeled as news, we’re fighting a misunderstanding of what is a pure journalism program and what’s an editorial show.

KB: The only good thing about it is people stopped writing me complaining about my hair. Now they’re just complaining because they think we’re putting a liberal spin on everything.

AW: And a lot of our viewers think we’re part of CBS or MSNBC or Fox. You get phone calls asking to be put through to Bill O’Reilly. We use the Fox name. We are a Fox affiliate. We can use their name, their programming, programming from Fox affiliates across the country, but there’s a big difference between national editorial shows versus local news, and I don’t think a lot of viewers understand the difference.

Read more: 'Behind the Glitz: 48 Hours with Kellie Burns'

Do you feel like viewers are waiting to pounce on your every mistake or perceived bias?

KF: I think it’s always been that way, but now you have Facebook trolls.

KB: … and you have the Trump Administration calling us out, calling us “the enemy of the people,” and that trickles down to our area, too, and I feel there’s a resentment toward the media in some ways, and it’s sad.

LT: People are less civilized than they used to be. We go to these public events and we stand there, and I can be berated for a story I had no participation in. It may have aired on our channel, it could have been a CBS story, doesn’t matter, and you will sit there and listen and you will take a verbal beating for it. I even had a guy recently say to me, “Well, I don’t hear you offering your opinion,” and I said to him, “And you never will. It’s not important what I think about it, it’s important that I represent all sides of a story.”

KB: You go through my Facebook page, and you will never know what my views are. You will never know where I stand on anything. Nothing.

AW: Switzerland.

LT: They’re trying to bait you. You have to be aware of what the climate is right now.

KB: I was down there when Trump was at Germain Arena, and it was the first time in my experience when I was on the air and there were people booing you, throwing popcorn at you. I’ve been in this community a long time and been proud to live here and always felt I was received with open arms, but when the speaker on the podium says something about the media and everyone starts booing you and throwing things … it was quite an experience, it was a first for me, and I have to say quite shocking.

What challenges do you face in the industry that your male counterparts do not?

Amy Wegmann, Fox4

Joined station: 2005

Birthplace: Worcester, Massachusetts (moved to Cape Coral at age 10)

Education: Florida State University, bachelor’s in communications with emphasis on broadcast journalism

Family: Husband, Trey Radel, and son

Outside interests: Spending time with her family, FSU football, Disney, playing the piano, traveling, taking bike rides with her son, cooking

AW: Appearance, No. 1. A woman could just start looking older, but a man as he gets older, he looks more “distinguished.” There is the pressure to look good, and your hair and your makeup and your clothes have to look good, and your body.

KF: People will body shame you. Sometimes their emails will go out to the whole newsroom. I hate that.

LT: And social media, too. I laugh about (the comments) now, but I think about the man who wrote in—I think it was a man—he thought that my hair looked like his cocker spaniel’s. Or recently, I got an email from someone who said I wouldn’t make it because of my “weak eyebrows.” I sit back and I think to myself, “Now, what would motivate someone to take the time to write that in? What’s going on in their life?” It would be nice one day to come in and receive a letter from someone critiquing me for my journalism, rather than the color I was wearing.

KF: It takes them so long to get past all of our looks, and then they finally listen to us. Whereas a man, they’re wearing a suit. Maybe their tie will look off one day and they’ll get comments, but basically they’re just wearing a uniform.

KB: Lois and I have been here the longest in the market, we’re the oldest people on-air, the two of us. Our co-anchors are younger—mine’s a lot younger than me—and it’s just changing. It used to be I was the kid. I was an anchor in my 20s, we both were, and now we’re not and it’s just different. There was an email just last week, “Why don’t you get rid of Kellie Burns? She’s been around too long.” Instead of being something where it’s celebrated, it’s positive. … I think most people do say, “I watch her because I can trust her,” but then there’s the person who says that, and you’re like, “Give me a break.”

What’s the worst comment you’ve ever gotten?

LT: When I was pregnant, there was someone who was so offended by my pregnancy that he wrote in and asked them to “put me in a closet until the baby was out already.”

KB: Same thing. I had someone say, “You’ve really let yourself go since you got married. You gained so much weight.” Uh, yeah, because I’m eight months pregnant.

LT: I think a long time ago I told myself, “Hey, listen, every gray hair, every wrinkle should be celebrated. It should be an asset and not a liability. It shows I have experience, I have the perspective to do this job, and it’s the reason you should be listening to me. And we flip it on its end and we put it the other way, and it shouldn’t be that way.

KB: Some of it’s coming from management now, and consultants. I feel lucky that my boss isn’t one of them, but we see the trend in the industry toward that.

AW: You have to build a really good self-esteem to work in this industry.

KF: I think Walter Cronkite said you save all the letters, and you put the good ones in a drawer and the bad ones in a drawer and when you’re having a bad day, you read the good ones, and when you’re getting a little too cocky, you read the bad ones. Although I think back then they weren’t as mean. What we get is just so ridiculous. I mean, when I had an asymmetrical haircut, someone said, “It looks like you had rats chewing on one side of your head.” You learn to laugh at how creative they are.

Is it harder for women on TV to do the tough interview without getting criticized?

KF: I think that’s a perception for sure. … We’re the bitch, and a guy is just doing his job.

AW: I personally have never felt disrespected. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman in any industry or across the country as a journalist who maybe hasn’t felt for a moment she’s been treated a tiny bit differently because she’s a woman.

KB: I’ve done a lot of investigative stories and done some tough interviews, and I’ve gotten emails from people and even consultants saying, “You need to smile more when you ask questions,” or, “Try not to have the ‘resting bitch face,’” or, “You came off too much like a ‘she-tiger.’” But in some cases it’s necessary to get the information you need because the person you’re interviewing can be trying to bully you or control the spin or control the story.

AW: But no matter what you’re doing—if you’re asking difficult questions or you’re doing a fluff interview—if you ask 10 people how you’re doing, you’re going to get 10 different opinions on what you’re doing right and wrong.

KB: I just feel men would never be told to back off, or smile a little when they’re asking a hard question, and women are walking that delicate balance between being a true journalist but not coming across as bitchy.

Lois Thome, WINK News

Joined station: 1992

Birthplace: Chilton, Wisconsin

Education: University of Wisconsin, bachelor’s in journalism and public relations

Family: Husband, John, and two children

Outside interests: Reading, sports with her children, dining with friends

LT: You know what’s really, really ironic? Here we are in an industry where the most coveted demographic for advertisers is this table right here. So why wouldn’t you want to hear exactly from that person every single day: what they think, what people are talking about, what’s going on. It would seem that you’d find many, many more women driving newsrooms, and you don’t see that. How many news directors in this market, how many management positions as a whole are occupied by women? It’s still very male-dominated.

Why do you think that is?

AW: It is tough now that I have my son. Before I had him, it wasn’t as difficult to balance that career with life. Now it’s a balancing and juggling act, and you give up something, usually sleep.

KB: I think as many women are coming out of journalism schools and going into the career (as men), but I think when they hit their 30s more women are dropping out. They are either staying home to take care of their children, or they are taking jobs that offer more flexibility and family time.

KF: I don’t even have kids, but we’re working ’til almost midnight. It’s a late day. My husband stays up until 1 a.m. with me so we have some time, and I don’t want to sleep all day, so I’m up early to make sure I can get stuff done. There’s not a great schedule.

LT: Plus, I think people are surprised at how long it takes to get to a level of salary in our industry that you can actually live on. In this market, people are starting out at $24,000, $25,000. If you can’t make a decent living, you start to ask, “Is this how I want to live my life, or do I want to move on?”

How do you make it work?

KB: Spreadsheets!

AW: You have to have a good support system. My husband and I literally high-five each other as he’s coming in the door, and we trade off taking over watching our son. I’m fortunate because my entire family lives here, but it’s a career that is demanding. I do struggle with it.

KB: My spouse lives in a different time zone, so I have the added challenge of that, too. (Her husband is in Chicago.)

KF: You either figure it out or you get out.

What do you love about your careers?

LT: It’s still exciting every day. The stories are always changing and evolving.

KF: No, never boring. And I feel like we complete something every day. A reporter completes a story. We complete our newscast and so we have a closure every day.

AW: I think all of us would agree that when you do a story that truly helps someone, when you’re sitting there holding back the tears as you’re interviewing, that stuff sticks with you forever. To me, that is really a perk of the job—to be able to help people.

KB: People complain about the media, but if we weren’t here as watchdogs and the politicians know that we’re watching them, and we’re calling people out for things, watching how the money’s being spent, there would be a lot more corruption going on. There is that gratification in knowing you are keeping people in check, and you can shine a spotlight on helping people. LT: There’s a reason we’re protected by the Constitution, and if you want to live in a free society, you need a free press, and if you don’t have it, your freedom will be gone very quickly.

How do you counter that negative perception of journalists?

KF: We volunteer for charities and we get to know people. I think if you are out in the public talking to any one of us, you can tell we’re not biased and we’re not trying to have an agenda. That’s why we do get out in the community.

KB: There’s a really good feeling when you do a charity event like the wine festival and you’re on your feet all day. … You’re exhausted, but you also think, “Wow, I played a little part in helping to raise money for that” or for whatever our individual causes are. It grounds you.

LT: You can’t replace us with a network news organization or a cable 24-hour station. We’re a local news organization, covering your community. In times of need, when crisis occurs or there’s a natural disaster, when there’s a police emergency, you need to have a source of news you can trust to provide you with the information you need. If we can’t do that core job, then we have no business being here anymore. So people can scream out fake news, they can scream out and bash journalism if they like, but you know, if there’s a crisis, people are turning to you for valid, reliable information, and you’re providing it.

What do you see in the industry’s future?

KF: Definitely more digital.

AW: Yeah—when something happens local or national, I don’t turn my TV on, I grab my phone. I don’t know what that means for an actual broadcast.

KB: I think there will always be a place for television news; we just have to figure out other platforms. You know, you’re not going to pick up your phone while you’re cooking dinner or getting ready in the morning.

LT: There’s more, and then there’s less. I have real fear about all the media conglomerations. There are far fewer organizations out there digging and watching out for you. Multiple corporate groups owning multiple stations, newspapers cutting back, fewer and fewer investigative journalists out there, looking out for your best interest and following your money. What do I see in the future? Less investigation, and that does not serve the public interest, the viewer, the reader, the listener.

Many broadcast reporters see Southwest Florida as a steppingstone. Why did you stay?

KB: I have a friend who’s an anchor at CNN, and she would invite a bunch of anchors from around the country to town and have a big girls’ weekend. They would all tell me, “Don’t leave. You have such a good gig here. It’s beautiful and you have management that treats you well.” I’ve heard so many horror stories from women about the way they were treated in the industry. My station is very flexible with me and my family life, so I thought, “Let me stay here and have a life, too.”

KF: It’s hard because all of your peers are like “market size, market size.” You feel this pressure around you, and I thought, “I’ve got to get to a bigger market.” Once we left, I started thinking about lifestyle and I realized I wanted a good life and a good career, and not just a good career. That’s why I moved back.

AW: For me, it’s easy. I grew up here. I tried to leave for a bit, and I can’t do it. I can’t be away from my family. And another reason is Fox4 has been so good to me. I started there as a weekend reporter, and they’ve just given me so many opportunities to grow. If I ever left, I’d be getting out of the business.

LT: If I move to Cincinnati, Ohio, a bigger market, would I make more money? Probably. Would I advance my career? Probably, sure, but then I would have to live with the gray springs and the cold winters. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a conscious choice. … Plus, you can make a difference here, don’t you think?”

What advice would you pass on to younger journalists?

KB: Go to law school! My stepdaughter interned at the NBC station in Chicago. … She is a fantastic writer, looks great on camera, and I was doing everything I could to dissuade her. It’s a tough industry, and it’s getting tougher.

KF: I would say pay your dues because so many think they’re just gonna end up being a main anchor. … (When I started), I was the weekend anchor, producer, reporter and shooter. I used to come in on a Saturday and do everything for my little one half-hour newscast.

AW: It’s not a fluff job. It is in no way, shape or form glamorous. It’s hard work, tough hours, tough pay, you have to work many, many years to get the point where you want to be in your career. But if you love it, go for it.

LT: Just be sure you know what you’re in for. You have to work holidays and horrible hours, you may get passed over for someone who has blond hair when you’ve got brown, and decisions may seem unfair. If you’re not willing to stick it out, then this isn’t the right industry for you. I always tell people if you’re gonna do a job, you have to have joy in what you do.

KB: Be tenacious. You have to be willing to do a lot of things when you’re young, and give up a lot when your friends (in other industries) are out having fun. But now I look, and I have the best job of all my friends, by far.

 

Wardrobe by Saks Fifth Avenue, Waterside Shops.