The hug, the humanity, and Omar Sachedina: Who is CTV’s new chief news anchor?

In April, Omar Sachedina did something unusual while reporting from Kukhari, a village outside the Ukrainian capital.

A bridge connecting the village to Kyiv had been destroyed, so civilians descended a ladder to get to the other side. That included an 87-year-old man who Sachedina interviewed.

In the clip, Grigory Lukianenko talks about how horrible the invasion has been, though he lived through the Second World War as a child. Moments later, the camera zooms in on the man as he struggles with words. He purses his lips, suppressing tears, “collapsing under the weight of an unimaginable grief,” says the national affairs correspondent’s voice-over.

It’s an intimate shot, where the viewer stands in Sachedina’s shoes, within arms’ length of Lukianenko, close enough to witness his emotion, and close enough, if they could just reach through the camera, to offer comfort to the older man.

And that’s exactly what the reporter did. The next shot shows Sachedina hugging Lukianenko, the man’s head resting on the journalist’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut, as Sachedina pats him on the back.

For his former producer, it’s a moment that encapsulates Sachedina as a journalist. The reporter was named chief news anchor and senior editor of CTV National News last week, taking over from Lisa LaFlamme.

“That’s so not typically journalistic,” said former CTV producer Olivera Stojanovic about Sachedina’s hug. But the story made her cry, she said, noting she texted Sachedina, “Oh, Omar. The hug, the humanity, 100 per cent you.”

Some viewers also tweeted that they were touched by the moment.

“It speaks to who he is,” Stojanovic continued. “That story. It’s the way he handled that. When do you ever see a reporter hug the person they’re interviewing? But it was that level of humanity in that moment that was required and (it was) beautiful.”

The news of Sachedina’s new high-profile job has been tainted, in the eyes of some, by the controversy around LaFlamme, who on Aug. 15 announced that her contract had been terminated, ending her more than three decades with the company.

Born in Vancouver, the political science alumnus from McGill University belongs to an Indian family from Uganda, according to his LinkedIn. The former CP24 reporter and anchor obtained his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He joined CTV National News in 2009, working in Toronto before moving to the Ottawa bureau in 2013. He’s been a national affairs correspondent since 2019.

For CTV, Sachedina has covered natural disasters in Haiti and Indonesia, travelled with the prime minister and reported from federal election campaign trails in addition to the recent conflict in Ukraine. He’s also served as a fill-in anchor. He’ll start his new role Sept. 5.

By the accounts of colleagues, past and present, Sachedina is a well-liked journalist whose strength lies not in his star power, but in his empathy. The Star contacted Sachedina and Bell Media for interviews for this story. A Bell spokesperson said Sachedina was on vacation.

Sachedina is “an award-winning veteran journalist with more than 15 years of experience covering many of the world’s most significant breaking news stories on the ground,” said CTV News in its announcement of his new role.

Shortly after LaFlamme tweeted about her termination last week, Sachedina posted about his new position.

“I am honoured to be following in the footsteps of Lisa LaFlamme and Lloyd Robertson,” he tweeted. “So excited to be working with our incredibly talented team in this new role!”

That tweet was met with criticism from people still reeling from the news of LaFlamme’s departure.

“Everyone at work loves and respects Omar. This is very s — for him as well,” said one producer, who didn’t want to be named out of fear of reprisal. “A career high, of course, he may have wanted this job, but never like this …

“After Lisa got the jump on posting that video, they sent out two emails, one about Lisa leaving and right after, Omar replacing her, and then they had Omar out doing PR hits trying to clean up their mess.”

In an interview on the network, Sachedina spoke about using his new role to continue building public trust in journalism.

“I also want to make sure that we’re in a position to be able to … reflect the stories, the faces, and the voices of the people in this country. I’m not just talking racially, I’m also talking geographically,” he said, noting it was an honour to follow the footsteps of LaFlamme, who he called “a friend and a mentor” and Lloyd Robertson.

As a person, Sachedina’s the type to flash a smile no matter how busy he is, and bring calm to a deadline-driven newsroom, former colleagues say. He works as a team player, and doesn’t see anyone as above or beneath him.

“He’s incredibly humble,” said former CTV Toronto reporter Tamara Cherry. “He’s not the kind of person that would think of himself as a star.”

He often filled in for LaFlamme and weekend anchor Sandie Rinaldo. To even some who didn’t work with Sachedina directly, it seemed like he was being groomed for bigger things.

As a journalist, he found stories that no one else was telling, said Peter Akman, a former CTV National News reporter. Akman was roommates with Sachedina when the two covered the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He remembers that while the Games were going on, Sachedina went off with cameraman Marc D’Amours and reported a story about an Edmonton woman who started a school in Brazil to teach children how to play string instruments and keep them away from gangs and violence.

That story ended up winning a national Edward R. Murrow award for excellence in sound by the U.S.-based Radio Television Digital News Association.

“Omar was never the type of person who cut corners to get a story,” Akman said. “He made sure he had the facts right before he went anywhere with it.”

Friends also describe Sachedina as thoughtful and sincere. Akman recalls a dinner near a beach in Brazil when the two had a break from reporting on the Olympics. Olympians were out and about in their midst, but Sachedina paid them no interest.

“He just wanted to sit and have a good chat and focus on a good meal and a good conversation with who was sitting across from him,” Akman said.

With the way things played out over the last week, those who know the reporter said they felt sorry for both him and LaFlamme. They point to Sachedina as bearing the brunt of people’s discontent on social media.

Meanwhile, there’s little celebration that a person of colour is taking on such a high-profile job in Canadian journalism.

“The world is changing and the face of TV is changing and has been for a while,” Stojanovic said. “That’s now been diminished by all the bad PR.”