Senior Science Analyst, Agriculture Canada
Interview by Stefanie Phillips (School of Journalism ’18)
Susan Lunn, School of Journalism ’90, is a Senior Science Analyst at Agriculture Canada. This interview was done when she worked for the CBC parliamentary bureau in Ottawa.
Why did you decide to study journalism in the first place?
When I was in high school I was part of the student newspaper and that was a lot of fun. Then I went off to King’s [University] College to get my Bachelor of Arts. I was going into my second year [there] and then that summer the [Chronicle Herald] had eight or 10 openings and they hired all of the journalism grads that they could. So I called in and they offered me a job with zero experience, so you have to remember this was in the 80s when this sort of thing happened. Then I just got the bug! When I graduated I applied to King’s and to [the School of Journalism]. At the time King’s didn’t have a good broadcast program so I said to myself, are people going to read newspapers when I’m 60? I don’t know. So I thought it would be better to have more skills than fewer skills, so I better go off and see if I can learn some of this broadcast stuff. I went to [the university] and it was the best decision ever.
You’ve worked all over the country from Halifax to Saskatchewan, how were you able to move around both personally and professionally?
In some ways I think it’s great. People who have worked in other parts of the country when they come to the parliamentary bureau they bring different aspects to politics that is unique. So I think professionally it’s actually better. You just make friends along the way and now I have friends all over the country and I think it’s a good thing.
How do you become accustomed to a new city as a reporter?
When I was moving around from Halifax to Saskatchewan I tried to focus on areas that I thought were interesting. I always really liked healthcare stories, I also really liked agriculture stories, so I would always look to those areas that I found interesting. I would call people, see what they were working on, get on their email lists. Obviously you can read local news although I find the state of local news is not what it used to be, so it is harder [now]. You just look at things that you find interesting that you think no one else is covering.
How long does it usually take to become fully accustomed?
It doesn’t matter how much experience you bring, it usually takes a full year to figure out who is where and who is what.
I read recently that journalism, especially reporting on politics, is like writing the first draft of history. Do you feel a responsibility with that?
Yeah, there’s always that pressure to get [the story] right, to get the context right, to describe the moment in time, looking behind the scenes and looking for what these moments mean in the bigger picture, right? That context gets easier the longer you’re here because you’ve been around longer. But you’re always sort of struggling to figure it out. So you know what, sometimes a budget is a budget and you need to cover it because people need to know what is in it, but in politics there’s always the opportunity to take it a little bit further.
What’s the most impactful thing you’ve experienced as a journalist?
In 2008 I went to Afghanistan for five weeks because they were rotating a bunch of us through there, so that was a huge eye-opening experience. I saw how people survive in a war zone; how women had to work and live their daily lives in a war zone.
What did you learn from that experience?
You go there as a woman and I remember being dropped there in the middle of 2008 and people [there] saying to me, ‘your company sent a woman to do this job?’ I remember I was interviewing an official in Kandahar and then afterwards he said, I realize you don’t speak the language, but my wives and my children would like to meet you because they’re really excited that a woman was coming to talk to us and is here to do a job. So I went, and and we didn’t speak the same language at all, but they were so excited to meet me and I thought, you know what, I am lucky. I felt like I represented something.
That sounds like a very interesting trip. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yeah, actually, I always found [the university] to be very practical. We had to go out there on days and turn the story around in the same day, and that’s very real to today. I’m on a different editing program now, but that concept is the same. I had Mark Bulgutch for TV reporting on Fridays and we would go out and when we came back he would teach us TV writing and I still think about those tips when I’m writing for TV. [The university] gives you the skills to go into the field prepared. I don’t know what King’s would have been like or what Carleton would have been like, but I just know [the university] has that reputation and I’m so glad I went.