Episode 20 // Fran Kelly – Mastering the Newsfeed

Unpaused Uplifts

April 21, 2020

Fran Kelly, host of ABC RN’s flagship Breakfast program, opens up with Judy about the positives of finding a rhythm, in the maelstrom of news that COVID 19 has brought… If you’re feeling overwhelmed and dispirited by the news, this is a how-to, from one of Australia’s leading media professionals, on coping,  regrouping, and even celebrating a few unexpected wins…⁠

// Hosted by Judy Stewart // Produced by Leonie Marsh // Sound Engineer: Jason Millhouse // Research Assistant: Claudia Cameron // Instagram: @_unpaused


Episode Transcript: 

Judy: Fran you juggle National and International News and make sense of it for all of us. Some people are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of news coming at us every day, especially as self-isolation has made everything seem so strange. How do you keep people tuned in but not distressed? What do you think we should be doing to approach the newsfeed every day?

Fran: Well, let me approach that first from my own experience, because in the initial week or two of this, I was overwhelmed by the news coverage. I couldn’t tear myself away from the news coverage. And it was distressing and it was frightening and it was anxiety provoking. And I was finding myself really overwhelmed by this sort of the negative impacts of this. And when I looked at my mobile phone usage one day, it was thirteen and a half hours and I thought woah! I’ve never, never had anything more than three or four hours. So that I think that’s probably representative of how people were consuming news as they tried to come to terms with what was coming down the tunnel at us and then the changes we had to make. So, I really do understand that notion of how to use stop is so consuming too much negative news without it overwhelming you and putting you in a dark space. And yet how do you keep informed? Because, you know, it’s a cliché, but information is power. And we really do need to keep up to date I think with the facts of this as we try as make sense of the impact it’s having on our lives, because if you don’t understand the seriousness, the facts, the statistics, if you don’t have some of that, then how do you make sense of the social distancing laws that are locking us all down in our houses and keeping us away from the ones we most love? So, my slogan for Radio National Breakfast is facts, not fear.

And I think that’s just a good mantra for all of us, really, which is defined perhaps limits limit. Keep away from 24 hour news, maybe limit the news sources you do go to every day, have a pattern to it, maybe check every couple of hours, check when you get up don’t check again for a few hours and have a limit on the number of sources you go to, sources you trust that you relate to, um you know journalists that you follow, basically that trusted news sources. I think this is a time this is a time for that maybe less of a time for Twitter.

Judy: How do you then play a long game Fran? Because we’re all going to have to play a long game with this crisis. We’ve got our eye on the crisis. But there are other things that are important in our lives, too. You’ve got your juggling a whole lot of other news issues, no doubt that are falling further down the agenda, but they’re still important. And three months ago, they were vitally important, I’m thinking about climate change and the bush bush fires which suddenly became the hot issue. How do you create a balance between now and later and not lose sight of the things that also matter?

Fran: Well, the truthful answer to that is I don’t know yet. It’s a work in progress. We’ve never been I’ve never been as a reporter through a global pandemic. I’ve never been through a story this big and this overwhelming. So, at the moment, it’s completely overwhelming the news agenda and that’s reflected on the program I host, which is Radio National Breakfast. We’re a two-and-a-half-hour program of live news or three-hour program. And really, there’s barely been room for any other story for the past three weeks. I think the rhythm will become clear. Already we are starting to ask ourselves about what are the other stories we should be looking at. Already, for instance, on the day we record this, we have the George Pell announcement. That will be a story we cover. Some stories will force themselves back into the news cycle. And I get the sense that that’s what’s happening now. That’s where we’re at. We’re going to lift our gaze.

But every time I do something that is a non covid-19 story at the moment, there isn’t a number of my audience who contact us either text or tweets to say, why are you why are you diverting from the main news? All we need to hear about is this pandemic right now. So, there is an appetite for it. But similarly, I’m sure there are others who are saying and they are they’re writing in and saying, what about climate change? What about refugees? What about these other stories that we had covered so assiduously for years? So I just think as a journalist in the position I’m in, which is, you know, in a leadership role in it in a daily news program, you’ve just got to try and make sure you’ve pick up the rhythm of the news cycle, and that’s something I can’t explain. I think it’s something that is sort of part of you doing the job I’ve been doing every day, and I’m sensing that there’s starting to open up now for more news stories to enter in. But this story is going to be the dominant story for a long time yet, I’ve no doubt.

Judy: But I like what you said about the rhythm Fran, because this story is going to have a long tail, but we will get more used to it being part of our day until we act, until they come up with a vaccine i guess, really

Fran: Yeah, we will. Well, we don’t know. We don’t know if we’re all going to be locked down. I mean, a vaccine’s probably 12 to 18 months away that thought that we could be, you know, social isolation for some of us. Social distancing for all of us for that long seems impossible to contemplate. Even six months is what we’re being prepped for seems impossible. And with a bit of luck, the curve in Australia will continue to flatten and we’ll bend. And then we can get back to something approaching normal life. But we just don’t know, because the countries that have gone there before us, we haven’t seen that pattern yet. So, we’re still waiting to learn.

Judy: What’s the most significant change you can see in your role now that encourages you to be optimistic that, you know, the world isn’t coming to an end, that that maybe some good will come out of this.

Fran: Well, it’s hard to know if good will come out of this. I suppose on a not so optimistic front, I’ve been I’ve been very disappointed to see that globally this is a global pandemic. And I don’t think the global community has come together yet in a positive way, as they did say during the global financial crisis. I think it’s a moment in time when nationalism has been on the rise, when trade barriers have been appearing again. countries have been looking at sort of country first. I suppose first among those is Donald Trump’s Let Make America Great Again slogan was the epitome of that. So, I don’t think it’s a terrific time for global cooperation. And that’s caused some problems here in the response to this pandemic, the sharing of PPE, of masks and other kind of equipment, the sharing even of research is not where it should be really for a global pandemic. That’s the negative. The positive is I think all of us are noticing what we’re missing so much in our lives. And that’s going to make us appreciate the contact we have with our families, of course, and our friends, but also just our communities more broadly. It’s going to make us aware of the importance of those contacts, those relationships in our lives. And hopefully through this, because we have seen some great reaching out mechanisms going on in communities, that will have a long-term positive impact about us communicating better with each other and thinking more about our neighbours. So literally our neighbours and the neighbour more broadly. So I’m optimistic on that front. I’m also optimistic that for my own role, that the media I mean, I feel a tremendous responsibility at the moment, every morning to try and bring people the information they need to know to do the right thing, to get through this, to have the information they need to try and be healthy and well through this and at the end of this as a society, we can sort of strengthen ourselves, build our resilience and come out of it stronger at the other end. That means supporting. I’m very positive about the national cabinet of state and territory leaders that are governing the national response to this. I think that’s a tremendous, really tremendous initiative. And I think it’s really stood our country in good stead. I think that’s working really well. I’m really heartened by the role that the scientists and the health professionals, the lead they’re taking in this and the respect they’re being given in this. You know, for a long time now, through the whole climate change debate. We’ve seen scientists dubbed the elites introduced in some elements of the community at this point they are leading our response and we are looking to them for their expertise and for their breadth and their depth. And they are responding. And I’m hoping that that might sort of recalibrate our respect more generally, our attitudes towards education and yes, some of them are elites that the scientific and medical health elites globally and we are lucky to have them standing amongst us and we should appreciate them.

Judy: It’s a great point, Fran. Well, thank you for making it, I think it’s a recalibration, again, even in Australia where we have diminished that that voice and all of a sudden, it’s come to the fore. And I think that there are contrasts in other parts of the world where they’re not doing that as well.

Fran: I think that’s right. I think, as I said, I think our leadership, it was a slow start. As it was everywhere, but I really think the formation of that National Cabinet has been a great example instead of a federation of states, we’ve come together as a nation at this moment with a response, a policy response that has been, respectful, generous, reactive, immediate. I think it’s been very good leadership and we’re seeing leadership across a range of sectors too within business We’ve seen some fantastic responses. You know, our banks have been heavily criticized. They’ve got a walloping at the royal commission. And you know, that really, they’re standing amongst us was not very strong. But I think the banking sector has responded really quickly and really effectively to this crisis. In our arts community. I think it’s really interesting how we’re seeing all sorts of initiatives that are designed to help all of us cope as we’re locked away in our homes and  the leaders of various sectors really just using their expertise and thinking broadly, what can we do to enhance and enable the broad community. And I think that’s been terrific.

Judy: If I just could ask you if I came back to the whole premise of Unpaused, which is nothing in your careers ever wasted. And sometimes you have to recap, use a skill in a different way in order to just start again. A lot of people who are going to be having to think differently about how they work in the future. If you looked at your own career over many years as a journalist, what do you think is the skill that stood you in really good stead over the years that you’ve been able to turn to account irrespective of what’s being thrown at you?

Fran: Well, let me think about that. A couple of things, for a start I’m generally a fact-based journalist. I try and deal with facts. I try not to err too much into the world of opinion. And that’s my style of journalism. I just like answers. I like information. I let that propel the interviews that I do. I’m all the time trying to channel it, channel in my mind as I do a live interview. What is it the audience wants to know here? What’s the information I can get? Forget about the gotcha moment. What’s the information I can get that will really give them something to take away from this interview? So, I think that stood me in good stead at this moment where the facts are critical. Also, you know, I’ve been a foreign correspondent, which means I’ve had, you know, been travelling around Europe broadcasting live from different, different places. Right now, I’m broadcasting from my home and so I’ve had to bring that experience to bear to thinking, yeah, I’m not in my studio, that’s OK. I’ve done this before and we’ve set me up at home. And it’s about being fleet of foot. That’s what I love about daily news anyway, that’s my forte, I think. And I suppose I’m pretty well placed to be able to move where the story goes, which is what we’re trying to do every day on RN Breakfast, trying to get ahead of it if we can.

Judy: Fran, I’m really grateful to you. I know you’re up against a deadline, so I’ll let you go. Thanks very much for your time. It’s been great to meet you

Fran: It’s a pleasure, everybody. Do stay safe. I know you’ve heard it before, but stay home, keep your distance and stay happy as you can. Resilience. It’s all about digging deep here.