Becoming a foreign correspondent is a dream for many journalism students.
Travelling and reporting on interesting things in exotic locations seems glamorous but that’s just one side of the job, warns ABC’s former South East Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Speaking candidly about her memoir, Storyteller, at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre on Saturday, Daniel said, “To some people jumping from being a rural reporter to being a foreign correspondent seems like a huge leap, but actually I think the job’s very similar.”
Daniel began her career with the ABC in 1993 as a regional radio reporter in Adelaide. She was appointed presenter of the Victorian Country Hour in 1997 then moved on to presenting National Rural News and Radio National’s A Country Breakfast before becoming a business reporter with ABC Current Affairs, completing stints at 7:30 and Lateline.
In 2004, while covering the Athens Olympics, she received the call to take up her her first foreign correspondent posting in Johannesburg. From 2005 to 2006 she traveled across Africa filming, editing her own material and reporting from remote locations.
She took a break from journalism to start a family with her husband Rowan, moving to Darwin and Phnom Penh as her husband was transferred before she returned to work as the ABC’s correspondent in Bangkok. For five years she juggled between her demanding job and raising two children – an uncommon situation fraught with professional and personal challenges.
While truth is key to reporting, she noted the importance of allowing subjects to tell their stories in their own words – to become the bridge between that world and the audience.
She strived, she said, “just to write something I thought would resonate with both with young women who are sort of starting their careers and also with other women who are juggling work and family”.
“Particularly when you’re reporting from overseas, you know to really give people a sense of context and nuance in the coverage and to sort of really enable them to see what’s real, the place that you’re in,” she said.
Daniel offered intriguing insights into the rise of social media in modern journalism: she joined Twitter during the violent civil unrest in 2010 of the pro-Shinwatra Redshirts and the traditionalist Bangkok elite Yellow shirts and Thai military as a means of communication with other journalists in difficult circumstances.
“The thing about Twitter is its a way of making contacts and its also a second way of distributing material and getting a bigger audience for the material that might not have otherwise seen it,” she said.
Daniel pointed out the importance of being multi-skilled and technically proficient in various mediums without losing the basics of journalism – talking to people, verifying information, getting out of the office, meeting people, interacting and making contacts.
“All those things that form the basis of journalism but now overlaid with all that other technical stuff too”
She also recommended building experience in rural or suburban journalism for students aspiring to be foreign correspondents.
“You get to do a lot more, you’ll build up a lot more experience, you’ll be much more accountable to your community. If you’re in a small community people will come and tell you if what you’ve reported was wrong or unbalanced,” Daniel said.
Zoe Daniel’s memoir Storyteller is available online and in bookstores. – Alisha Buaya
Top photo from Zoe Daniel twitter.