“This is a job where anything can happen and you have to roll with the punches”
Efficacy and agility are rarely lacking in the host of CNN’s News Stream
, a daily live show produced from
Hong Kong and broadcasted around the world, on the cable network’s international feed. And just as
well. For the 37-year-old anchor, the constant menu of stories in the programme, ranging from civil
unrest in the Middle East, to earthquakes in Japan or Turkey, seldom allow for much preparation.
“This is a job where anything can happen and you have to roll with the punches,” she says, noting that almost nine out of 10 stories are unplanned. “Last year in particular, we saw so many historically significant events that took everyone by surprise.”
As someone intimately involved in the unfolding events, Stout feels a surge of satisfaction when stories turn out for the better, such as the November rescue from the quake zone in Turkey. “Live on News Stream, we watched as three generations of women were rescued from the rubble. It was extraordinary.”
“These stories strike a chord with you because they are about perseverance and survival.” She admits to recently being resensitised to emotionally-charged events. “Since I became a mum three years ago, what struck me by surprise is how it has turned me into a much more empathetic person. It is as if it opened a third eye.”
Unlike the typical stoic news anchors of the past, such as Walter Cronkite, Stout feels that blocking the emotion of a story is to deny viewers an important way of understanding the news. Recounting the report on the recent famine in the Horn of Africa, when faced with dozens of clips of wide-eyed, malnourished children, CNN was careful to use images that told the story, without crossing the lines of what was distasteful.
“Later, I heard from a friend that while he and his wife watched our coverage, they were so moved by our images and production of the story, he decided to donate an entire day’s profit from his firm to the Red Cross. That is the power of news — it is the ability to fix someone’s attention to an event, even when it is hard to watch.”
It was an innate curiosity which led Stout away from working inside China’s burgeoning internet industry, to become a reporter (“I learnt I have the DNA of a journalist, not a business person”). She is convinced that journalism should be about raising important questions. “It is to give a voice to the voiceless, and to hold those in power accountable. It is also to anticipate social, technological and political trends.”
China’s increasing role as a major world player is one of those trends, and the self confessed “China nerd” admits to being hooked on the story. While American-born, she says with grandparents from Beijing and a mother from Taiwan, she has long been fascinated by Chinese culture.
An intense language programme at Tsinghua University, in China, in the 1990s led her to near-fluency in Mandarin, a skill which has proved invaluable. She works with a language tutor once a week, reading news articles in Mandarin whenever she can. “When I go to Beijing, I’m my own fixer. I don’t need a translator. I recently interviewed the Chinese artist Zheng Fan Zhi. We were able to connect in a strong way that wouldn’t be possible through a translator.”
Presenting a live news show every week, streamed across the world, may seem like a nerve-wracking business, but with practice, there is a joy in dealing with the unexpected. “It becomes second nature, but what is exciting about live television, is that anything can happen. A news story that has been developing all day can suddenly take a turn when you are live. It is a thrilling experience.”
Not that her career has been one without a few on-air gaffes. Stout’s transatlantic voice breaks into a giggle. “One time I was talking to my colleague John Vause and I called him ‘Jaws.’” Worse, she says, was a memorable live interview. “I had an interview with the CEO of Samsung and I called his company Sony.” Fortunately, an unpleasant scene was avoided. “He was actually flattered.”
How about a trick to staying personable onscreen? Pretend the camera is your sibling. “It can be intimidating when you start, addressing this black-eyed camera. How I got through that was imagining my sister Jodie was in the camera, and that I was sharing a compelling fact or story.”
Stout is proud of CNN’s recent anti-slavery initiative, a year-long project which aims to take on the “slow burn” issue of human trafficking. For Stout, an interesting aspect has been the way technology can help address the issue. She describes how anti-slavery organisations are using mobile applications, such as Slavery Footprint. “It calculates how many slaves work for you, based on your consumer choices.”
Away from the big issues, Saturdays are spent enjoying the softer side of life, such as the beach, watching pandas at Ocean Park or walking in the Botanical Gardens. She says her work-hard, play-hard lifestyle has made her a convert to Hong Kong. “The place is built for maximum efficiency. It is a dynamic city, though it can be hard to feel like you would relax here. You feel a constant buzz of energy.” As her time with Ascott Living runs out, we leave the multilingual anchor-mum with a parting question. What is the worst thing about being the interviewee rather than the interviewer? She laughs. “Well, my greatest fear when being interviewed is feeling that I am wasting people’s time.” For someone who is battling the clock each day, it is an admirable concern.