Even leading up to college, Kai Jackson never planned to be on TV. In fact, when he first enrolled at South Carolina State College, he was an engineering major, though he admits now that may not have been the best fit.
Many instantly recognize Jackson as the co-anchor for Fox45’s four nightly newscasts airing Monday through Friday. Jackson, who grew up in Glenarden, Md., in Prince George’s County, has been a leading face for the station for nearly two years now, though he’s been a fixture in Baltimore news for much longer, spending two decades as a reporter and anchor for CBS affiliate WJZ before leaving the station in late 2013. Before he came to Baltimore, Jackson gained experience as a TV journalist working in stints at stations across the South and Midwest.
At 52, Jackson has developed a strong appreciation for the fundamentals of reporting and capturing the human experience in storytelling over the course of his career. Outside of his work as a TV news anchor, he’s a father, husband, budding filmmaker and proud foodie. Last week, Jackson sat down with Baltimore Fishbowl to talk about his time as a journalist, his outlook for Baltimore as a news town and more.
You’ve mentioned before that you grew up in Maryland. Did you grow up focusing on Baltimore news?
Not really. I saw Baltimore news from a distance. The people I watched mainly were people like Al Sanders, who used to work at my former station WJZ, and Rod Daniels, who used to work at WBAL, but I was really engrained in D.C. news – Channel 9, Channel 7, Channel 4, Channel 5. That was the thing: Even as a kid when I was growing up, Washington was probably one of the ‘Where’s where?’ markets, along with New York and LA, that had four strong networks. Even today with all of the cable channels and as popular as local news is…you can’t say that about every city. Washington always had four solid, strong stations. Baltimore is more of a three-horse town. Even though there are four affiliates here, not everyone is in the game.
At the same time, Washington and Baltimore are fortunate to have four affiliates. I’ve also found Washingtonians are increasingly interested in Baltimore and the people here.
“News anchor” is a pretty unique profession. Is that the job you always envisioned for yourself?
Absolutely not. I always laugh when I hear people say they always knew from the age of three what they wanted to do. I don’t know how you decide something like that when you’re that young. I didn’t decide until I was in college exactly what it was that I wanted to do because I didn’t know. I started off majoring in engineering, which is a bad decision since I hated math and wasn’t particularly good at it. I got out of the engineering major and got into English, which is something I’ve always been good at. But I had been doing things in high school and even earlier than that which I think helped guide me to TV. We had a production class and studio in my high school in Prince George’s County — Eleanor Roosevelt High. That experience and the teacher who taught me had a profound impact on me, and I think that kind of pushed me toward journalism.
I’ve heard people say, “You sound like a TV news anchor.” I think the reason is because I’ve become accustomed to patterning my voice in a certain way that projects it, and that’s why I sound like that, but I’m not thinking about it when I talk. I think it just comes out that way.
How many places have you worked throughout your career?
Let me count…Charleston, S.C., Montgomery, Ala., Savannah, Ga., Wichita, Kansas, Baltimore, WJLA [in Arlington, Va.]. And I’ve worked for every affiliate now, too, at those seven stations.
A lot of times, people think their local station fits with the political leanings of its national network. Can you speak to that?
The only difference is mechanical. It’s how each station goes about acquiring news for the day. Every place has its own way of doing it. At the end of the day, they’re trying to get a product on the air. The bottom line of each day is that they’re trying to make money. I don’t think people should be confused about that. It’s a business, and that’s what their goal is.
News is an opportunity for us to do a couple of things: to report to people what’s going on, and to advertise. That’s how we make dollars obviously, through selling spots and programming some spots as well. And we connect with people in the community. It’s kind of hard to put out a newscast and have no relationship at all with the community these days. People really want to connect with you, and if they don’t connect with you, it could be to your detriment.
Has it become easier for a station to connect with the community these days, particularly with the advents of social media and the web?
I think it’s more expected that you connect. When I first got in the business, which is now almost 31 years ago, you would have contacts and resources, and it was not uncommon to have a contact who you’d go out and have a cup of coffee with, have dinner or a drink with. Now we’re using the word “relationship” more than even “contacts.” Back in the day it was like, “Do you have any contacts at City Hall? Do you have any sources at the chemical plant down the road?” Now it’s expected that you’ll generally have those kinds of relationships and maintain them in the event that something happens, or to just hit across a story.
What’s been your most memorable story to cover during your time here in Baltimore?
You know, 9/11 was a really watershed moment in American history. People compared it to Pearl Harbor basically for the 21st century. I don’t think that’s a stretch, and the difference is Pearl Harbor didn’t happen in the continental United States. I think that changed all of us within and just made us more mindful that freedom and security are things that you have to value.
The Freddie Gray story was painful to cover because of what it meant. The totality of what we’re seeing has a very poignant and painful place for me as someone whose parents were born during the Great Depression, and whose dad grew up in the Deep South, whose mother grew up in Indiana. My parents dealt with segregation. I think the problem is we don’t see how important the window of history is from the perspective the people of color, from the Emancipation Proclamation. I was born 100 years after the end of slavery. That’s not a long time. People live longer than that. What that means is there’s been a decent amount of progress, but it’s been incremental, and that there are still problems to address.
Did that story (Freddie Gray) take on a particular significance for you as a black journalist?
Every day, when I go out and I give out the stories, I don’t look at myself as putting a spin on it from being black. I look in the mirror and I know who I am. What I do believe, though, just like you bring your experiences to going out and covering a story, I think I have experiences that can do the same thing, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
I hear people say, “well, as a journalist, how do you remain fair and unbiased?” I don’t think there’s any such thing as completely objective. I think all of us carry the baggage of who we are to a story. Here’s the key: When we open that bag, what tools are you pulling out to cover the story? If you’ve known someone in your life who’s been the victim of a robbery or assault and you go to cover that story, you might have a special understanding and sensitivity toward doing that that’s going to allow you to be compassionate. I think we should use the tools in our bag of experiences to do a better job not advance a personal agenda.
Having worked as many places as you have, how does Baltimore stack up as a news town?
I think incredibly. There is so much happening in this city on a regular basis. I think there’s a growing market for food. I see a growing and emerging artist community. And I like the fact that the Baltimore Fishbowl, that the City Paper, that Real News Network are in this town, and I’ll tell you why: It keeps everyone else in check. It lets them know that no one entity has the market cornered on telling stories. We need to keep our minds open to a multitude of voices.
This is my opinion: I’m not a good journalist if the only thing I want to do is take in and breathe the immediate journalism around me, and that would be my station. To be a good journalist, I need to see what other journalists are saying, how they’re reporting on stories, angles that they went after that perhaps I didn’t think about. To me, that’s crucial.
How do you see the media landscape changing?
I’m a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists. One of the things [we talked about] in SPJ, before it became big, was backpack journalism, both from the standpoint of working in an established unit and from the standpoint of people coming into the game brand new, having a camera, a blog, a website. What I tell people is this: Having an opinion, a camera and a website or a pen, along with anger, doesn’t make you a journalist.
People are putting things on the web that are simply not true. It’s gotten to the point that they’re just ranting. Too many people in mainstream journalism oftentimes, in the interest of trying to advance stories with new information, pick up on that. Journalists, credible journalists oftentimes, are extracting things that they’re finding. That’s a dangerous area to be in. You lose a lot of credibility when you do that. I have a simple rule: If I can’t confirm it or get it from an established source that I think has a reasonable amount of credibility, I’m not going to report it. I’m not gonna risk whatever reputation I have on putting something out that is not true, is erroneous or that I could have just kicked out of the water with some basic homework.
Do you think that flow of information and the new technology puts the objective news reporting process at risk?
“Objective” is a slippery slope, but you still have to use the word. We have to recognize how our experiences affect our thinking; that’s all. Also, if you look at where the world is moving, we’re moving a lot toward artificial intelligence. As great as the technology is, and I’ve said this to my daughters, you can marvel at the computer, but marvel at the mind that came up with the design for it. You want to really marvel at something? Marvel at the Empire State Building or a steam engine, things that were constructed and basically still stand today with only basic drafting tools, mathematics, no computers or assisted design, none of that. That to me is a true marvel.
Do you see that being true for stories, too?
I see us becoming a little anesthetized to humans. We seem to be fascinated with things that do funny or fascinating things. I think it’s important not to lose sight that there are people out here that are really strong minds who have the ability to come up with really great ideas. That’s what’s impressive to me. You never want to take the human element out of the story. At the end of the day, people want to connect with another person in some form or fashion, and that’s what they’re going to do. If you look at the reason why people read a book, it’s character. The reason why people see a film: character. That’s why people are interested in half the things they are, because there’s some person on the other end with whom they identify.
What type of journalistic work do you do outside of being on the evening news?
I speak to young people; that’s probably the big thing. I speak to them a lot about what journalism is today and what it isn’t and how it’s evolving. What I’m learning as I stay in the business longer…it’s like, I tell my daughter this when I’m driving in the car: “You see Daddy driving right now? Every time Daddy starts to get a little comfortable behind the wheel, he stops, takes a look in the mirror and looks around,” because I never want to be comfortable behind the wheel. That’s when bad things happen. You don’t want to get comfortable in practicing journalism. It’s hard to have your finger on the pulse of anything anywhere. Life is constantly moving, changing and evolving. But if you’re alert and aware, you can do a fairly decent job of it. That’s what I want to tell young people when I speak to them.
I’m involved in film, too. With a friend here in Baltimore, I formed a small boutique firm and our focus is real simple: Short features, short documentaries and corporate videos. We did a documentary together as a grad school project, but what we’ve really succeeded at is corporate videos. We’re trying to move on to the documentary work and the feature film work, but it’s hard. He and I both have families, full-time jobs, and it’s hard to execute outside interests when you’re juggling a family and a full-time job.
We’ve had some major political shifts recently, both nationally and in Baltimore. Given those changes, what do you predict will be the biggest stories for next year?
I think the new presidential administration will be under the microscope, and I think the new mayoral administration here in Baltimore will be under the microscope. My parent company (Sinclair Broadcast Group and WBFF Fox45) has a very laser-like focus on government accountability and “waste watch.” I suspect you’ll be seeing us do a lot of those stories, making sure your elected officials are accountable, making sure that tax dollars are not wasted, and if they are, making sure we show the view and explain where those dollars went and why decisions were made to spend them.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional comment from Jackson on the Baltimore and Washington D.C. TV markets and the subject of objectivity in the media for purposes of clarification.
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