News & Community

Cameo: Donna Hamilton

The WBAL-TV news anchor discusses her retirement.

By the time this issue hits stands and goes online, you’ll be retired from WBAL-TV. After 22 years at the station, how are you feeling about the transition into retirement?
It will be a big change for me, and I haven’t worked out exactly how that’s going to be or what I’ll be doing next. I know I’m going to be putting together a lifestyle website about travel, decor, and food. I wanted more time to do what I want to do, which is travel and spend time with my grandchildren. It will be something different, but everyone tells me I’m going to love it, and I intend to do so! 

How did you get into broadcast journalism?
I got my start on television in Birmingham, Alabama, which is where I grew up and went to school. I had done some modeling, and there was a live morning talk show that had an opening for a co-host/on-air sidekick position. I auditioned for the position and didn’t get it, but I started working at the station and filling in for the co-host when she was on vacation. When she left the station—I was in my late 20s at the time—I got the job and that’s how I fell into broadcast. 

You joined the WBAL-TV news team in 1995. What was that first year like?
Honestly, the first year was pretty terrifying for me because I had never done that type of daily coverage before. The reports had to be short and quick, almost shrink-wrapped. . . . The 5 p.m. show is always the newscast that takes the brunt of anything that’s going on during the day, changewise, so it was always like riding a bucking bronco and it still can be today. Sometimes it’s very tame, it’s just a newscast, no big deal. But then something will happen and all hell will break loose. 

Once you got past the terrified phase, did you see news anchoring as something you wanted to continue for the rest of your career?
I don’t know that I did. See, I know everyone seems to think that there’s going to be a light that dawns on yonder rock and you suddenly have this clear idea of what you want to do with your life, but that light never really dawned for me. I happened to be good at what I did, by the grace of God, and it propelled me forward in my career. It wasn’t that I ever had this gigantic plan to do this or that. Things just found me and I kept doing them well. 

That’s interesting because I feel like younger generations have the notion that you have to have your career planned out years in advance.
Exactly. Everyone is asking themselves, what do I want to do with my life? I think that’s the hardest thing to do. There’s too much pressure. Wait, how old are you?

I’m 22.
Oh my god! Well when you’re 22, I can only imagine how life yawns before you in this series of big question marks. What am I supposed to be doing? What am I good at? Should I have some five- or ten-year plan? I wish I could tell people those answers from this part of my life, but I don’t have any. I think most people find something that they’re pretty good at and run on that stream.

Can you relate to that feeling with your career?
Television just worked for me. I liked that it was something different everyday and I wasn’t stuck in a cubicle. It was sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, sometimes terrifying, but it was always something I could do and so I did it. I like the performance aspect of doing the broadcasts because you know when you nail a read. And then, other times, not so much.

And if the newscast doesn’t go well, you get to try it again during the next show.
Yes! That’s what I like about news—Nothing hangs over from day to day. You finish the newscast, and it may have been really good or it may have been a total disaster, but either way it’s over. There’s always another chance to do a perfect show, which will never happen of course, but every single show is a fresh slate. 

Over the past few years, local television news viewership has declined as more people get their information through other mediums such as the internet and social media. What do you think local news will look like in 10 years?
Well, part of the problem is that no one really knows where TV news is headed. There are a lot of people who believe that its heydey is over, which is probably true. I don’t think younger people are watching TV news; they get their news in other ways, and that will continue to be a challenge. But local news does have a particular product to offer that no one else does. If you want to know what’s going on in your own city or state, then you’ll probably have to watch a local newscast, because national affiliates are only going to cover our news if something huge happens . . . I think all TV newscasts, whether it’s local or national, face the same kinds of issues. The big question is: How are people going to get their news in the future? I just don’t know. 

As a news anchor, how did you combat the public’s growing distrust of the media?
We just keep on doing real news. I don’t know how you combat the thought that people create fake news, because I genuinely and truly believe that most people in this business really strive to do their best work and put the most honest, unbiased story out there that they can. That’s why I think this whole fake news business is fake. It’s fake itself, and it’s sad that it throws doubt in people’s minds. It’s dangerous—the press is the force that stands between the American public and people who would like to do things under the cover of darkness. Without the press, how would you know what people in high places are doing? You wouldn’t. 

What was your reaction to the Sinclair Broadcasting controversy, where the media company faced scrutiny for forcing its news anchors to record a promotional message about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country”?
I was horrified for the people who had to do it. . . . I think that was a really bad position to be put in and I felt for them. In reality, that’s a very difficult decision to make as an anchor. You might have a family to raise and bills to pay, and now your job is potentially hanging over this decision. It’s very easy to say you wouldn’t do it, but that’s very difficult to do. What would I have done? I honestly don’t know. I like to think I would not have done it but I don’t know. 

One last thing: You requested to appear in this feature without makeup or retouching. What motivated that decision?
When I think about all the thousands of newscasts, photoshoots, and appearances, I’ve done over the course of my career, of which makeup has always been a key part, I just thought, wouldn’t [the photo] be more interesting without it? . . . I suppose I’ve been in the business my whole life full of artifice and I wouldn’t mind being the under-the-artifice me. I may live to regret that dreadfully.