As Alberta Bureau Chief for CTV National News, Janet Dirks covers all major news breaking in the region. On any given day, she may pitch a story or be assigned a story, research, write, tape a segment, edit at the CTV station in Calgary or on the road, or do live hits when needed. Dirks’ career took a few twists and turns on her way to becoming a two-time Jack Webster Award-winning journalist. She completed an Honours history degree before completing a law degree at the University of Victoria and being called to the bar in 1987.
I always wanted to be a journalist but I was worried that I wouldn’t find a job. So while I was in law school, at an ‘alternative career day,’ I spoke to a television reporter who had a law degree. Her advice to Janet? “Finish the thing. At the very least, I would have a career to fall back on if journalism didn’t work out.
Dirks completed law school and was called to the Bar. When the firm she articled with made her an offer, she knew it was the right time to jump. She was accepted into Carleton University’s (then) one-year journalism program, but not before she went to a business college for a crash course in typing.
A veteran journalist, Dirks still finds her work thrilling, for admittedly old-fashioned reasons. “I enjoy meeting people,” she says. “I get to talk to so many people I would otherwise never get to talk to.”
Some of her favourite interviews were with Canadian writers and artists. Before she moved from CTV British Columbia in Vancouver to Calgary in 2008 to work with CTV News, Dirks Interviewed Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Carol Shields, the last time at her home in Victoria.
Carol has been getting cancer treatments and, as a result, she had lost her hair. When she asked if I would pencil in her eyebrows for her, I was so moved by this moment of human connection. My hands were shaking as I touched her face.
In an interview with artist Ted Harrison, pride of the Yukon, she recalls how generous he was with his time and extremely positive about life. She also interviewed renowned West Coast landscape watercolourist Toni Onley, and covered his death in a tragic plane crash.
This past September 29, she was in Carcross, Yukon, covering the visit of Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In a memorable moment, she met Tlingit master artist and carver Keith Woolfe-Smarch who presented the royal couple with an impressive totem pole. Dirks recalls,
Mr. Woolfe-Smarch met Prince Charles when he visited the community 15 years before. He gave Prince Charles a carved mask. “The prince couldn’t have been nicer”, he said.
Janet Dirks with Tlingit artist Keith Wolfe-Smarch while she was covering the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Carcross, Yukon, this past September
When asked about the top skills for today’s media workers, Dirks’ answer is a surprise.
I place the highest skills as the ability to listen to people and curiosity. Keep your mouth shut. Show respect to people and listen to what they have to say.
Curiosity is crucial in an era when being a specialist is out and being a generalist is in. Says Dirks,
Any skill, as well as life experience, is helpful to a journalist. Take science! Take art history! Learn as much as you can.” Many of her fellow reporters, she notes, have law degrees. “The study of law was a good way for me to discipline my mind. It has helped me with legal stories as well.
She has covered court cases, including the trial of serial killer Robert Picton.
Journalists today must be interested in everything. My encouragement is to read as much as you can. Reading opens your mind and educates you to so many subjects. It will save you time,” she adds.
Dirks is still excited about her assignments which allow her to dig and discover.
A good reporter or producer is always interested in everything,” she says firmly. “Never be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions.
When she wakes in the morning, Dirks says a silent prayer that she will conduct herself with integrity and tell the stories of people fairly and with compassion.
I know I’m lucky to be in this privileged role, being able to tell stories to the rest of Canada. I don’t take this role lightly.
Recalling her days as an insecure student, Dirks closes with encouragement for those working in the field.
First of all, value yourself. Don’t be discouraged if you are a novice reporter or more seasoned. Everyone brings something unique to the table, no matter what point in their media career.
From the Desk of Janet Dirks
How is reporting national news from Alberta different than reporting on local news?
As national reporters, we tend to report stories that have a national interest. Many times, local reporters and I work on the same stories, such as the fires of Fort McMurray, the Alberta flood, and the death of Jim Prentice. I’m always grateful to work with the excellent reporters in our Calgary and Edmonton newsrooms. I always learn from them and I’m constantly impressed by their professionalism, passion and talent.
What are your current goals?
I want to continue to be a working journalist, telling stories to Canadians with integrity and passion. Much has changed—particularly with social media—and I expect more will change with developing technology. Still, the fundamentals remain the same. There was great journalism before cell phones came along. Let’s never forget that.
What was your most memorable experience at the Middle East Bureau in Jerusalem?
Talk about a steep learning curve, to be in Jerusalem and trying to understand the issues. It was like peeling an onion, with layer after layer unfolding. Almost everything is related to The Conflict. I was there at a relatively peaceful time, so I have many happy memories of this complicated land and its fascinating people.
Once I was covering a story about the olive harvest in the West Bank. The farmers were pressing the olives to make oil, and I was invited to dip my pita bread into the fresh oil and eat it. What a moment. There were children there—I think everyone from the village was there—and we were all dipping our bread and eating and laughing. It was beautiful.
I made some dear friends and even had a Christmas party. Believe me, it’s not easy to find Christmas lights and an artificial tree over there. I think I bought them in Bethlehem. For the party, I made latkes and played Canadian music. Everyone was surprised to learn that their favourite performers were Canadian. Where did they think Diana Krall was from?
What are your thoughts on the media coverage of the US presidential election and Trump’s claim that the media is biased against him?
The media has been extremely fair in giving Trump and his supporters equal time to share their positions. Even Saturday Night Live pokes fun at both Trump and Clinton. If I had a dollar for every time Trump blamed the media, I’d be a wealthy woman.
What are your personal interests?
I probably work too much or think about work too much. I have to make sure that I’m more than my job. That’s where my interests come in.
I love music of all kinds, especially classical and jazz. I’m also a film lover and try to see a movie about once a week. Nothing beats sitting in a theatre with other people. I would love to have been a film critic or a film studies prof in another life. I’ve been known to make my nieces watch the classics, such as Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), Now Voyageur (Bette Davis) and All About Eve.
I’m obsessed with the Netflix series River, starring Stellan Skarsgard as a detective. The show is brilliant. My goal is to get as many people as possible to see it.
I’m a huge reader, at least several books a month, often biography. I just read a new bio of the Mitford Sisters. I’m a big user of the Calgary Public Library. I come from a family of library supporters. Libraries have been a passion of mine since I was a little girl.
Like so many, I love to travel. Berlin was my last favourite destination. I worked in the Middle East Bureau in Jerusalem for six months and visit friends there every couple of years.
I’m a really good cook and baker. It’s in my DNA, with a Ukrainian grandmother on one side and a Mennonite “grossmama” on the other.
I’m also a proud aunt of three wonderful young people and the devoted companion to an 18-year-old rescue cat.
By Constance Brissenden for MediaMag.ca
Constance Brissenden’s writing, editing, and teaching career spans more than 40 years. A Masters graduate of the University of Alberta (Theatre), she is co-author of award-winning children’s books by Cree author Larry Loyie, as well as more than a dozen titles of history and travel. Website: www.firstnationswriter.com.