Braving frostbite for a sound bite

Why do TV reporters have to stand in the cold to cover the indoor sport of politics

Braving frostbite for a sound biteIt was the evening of what the Ottawa press corps had dubbed Obama Day. A bitter wind blew across Parliament Hill, and it was snowing sideways as CBC parliamentary reporter Susan Bonner stood in front of a camera, trying to ignore the weather as she taped a report on President Obama’s visit for The National. Her eyes had begun to water almost as soon as she’d stepped outside. After she had delivered her stand-up, Bonner recalls, “My producer said, ‘Your face was covered in water. You’re going to have to go out and do it again.’ I said, ‘I’m not going out there again. They can live with the tears.’ ” But the next day, wherever she went, “I got, ‘Was that snow on your face or were you crying?’ ”

Braving snow, sleet and bone-chilling temperatures to talk about the cozy indoor sport of parliamentary politics is a tradition in Ottawa—and an occupational hazard for TV reporters across the country. Without a hat, or appropriate winter coat, they stand outside in the dark, watching their breath freeze, and perform for the evening news as if the elements did not exist. The idea, of course, is to make the news visually compelling, and provide a sense of location and real-time immediacy, especially to live reports. But it can be distracting, as if the journalist is a kind of domestic war correspondent engaged in a curious form of bravado. On nights when most sane Ottawa citizens would not walk from their house to their car without a toque, they dare to talk bare-headed to the nation.

Parliamentary reporters are supposed to take face-freeze in stride; it goes with the turf. But there can be issues. Jacques Bourbeau, Global’s Ottawa bureau chief, is no sissy when it comes to cold: he cross-country skis and cycles to work throughout the winter. Still, in doing sub-zero stand-ups, he says, “one huge problem is what I call ‘mumble lips.’ If it’s really cold, I’ve got a two-minute window of opportunity before my lips and facial muscles start to freeze. That elasticity you need to enunciate disappears and you start to mumble.” Bourbeau recalls one frigid day a few years ago when he was outside Rideau Hall for a cabinet swearing-in ceremony, waiting to ask a question of then-Liberal minister Anne McLellan. “I’d been standing out there for an hour, and hadn’t been talking to anybody,” he says. “When she came out, I started to deliver the question but my face was frozen and I sounded drunk. She looked at me and started to laugh. So I started massaging my mouth to get the muscles to work.”

Bourbeau agrees that sub-zero reportage may be distracting for viewers. “I wonder if they’re scratching their heads thinking, ‘Doesn’t that guy have the sense to wear a hat?’ But it is a visual medium, and if you’re out there in a toque with a pompom . . . ” Bonner understands that her producers want to shoot stand-ups outdoors in the dark “to show we’re working on them right up to the last minute.” But the weather can get in the way of the story. “I slave over those 15 or 18 seconds and people say, ‘My God, you looked cold!’ or ‘Your hair was really blowing!’ Why do I bother?” Then she laughs at her own sensitivity. “I’m famous in our bureau. The minute I step outside, my eyes water. I have fistfuls of Kleenex to wipe the tears off my cheeks. Some of them stay—I cringe when I think of high-definition screens.”

The men, who endure less scrutiny for their appearance, act more stoic. “Even on the coldest nights it’s no big deal to shoot a 15-second stand-up,” says Roger Smith, CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief. “I don’t want to sound macho, but I can deal with an Ottawa winter.” Standing in front of the Parliament Buildings “may be a clichéd shot,” he adds, “but if we did it in our studio every night, it would have a boring sameness.” CBC Ottawa bureau chief Keith Boag concurs, adding that “no one puts up with more than the camera and sound people, who are out there for five or six hours.” Yet Boag concedes that viewers are commenting: “You’re tapping into something. I’ve spent a long time in this business standing outside, but this is the first year I can remember people being concerned about it.”

Then again, this winter has been cold, and it was especially brutal during December’s political crisis. “We were filing six or seven nights a week at a frantic pace,” Bonner recalls. “And I was struck by what a crazy way it is to make a living—at the end of your day to throw a whole bunch of makeup on your face, rush outside and talk into a little light somewhere off in the distance, trying not to cry and to look warm and relaxed and authoritative.”