Santilla Chingaipe, freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and former SBS reporter

Santilla Chingaipe, former SBS World News reporter, freelance journalist for The Saturday Paper and documentary filmmaker. Photo supplied by Santilla Chingaipe and taken by Courtney Moore.
“Some of the best journalists are the ones you never really hear about.” Former SBS World News reporter, freelance journalist for The Saturday Paper and documentary filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe tells Elana Frost why journalism matters.

What got you into journalism?

I always knew I wanted to be a journalist since I was like, four. I remember my Dad every weekend watched CNN – when CNN was good – and Christiane Amanpour was always reporting from somewhere in Bosnia or Kosovo and I don’t know, there was just something about it that seemed so fascinating and interesting. When I was at uni… I started looking for an internship or work experience at the SBS or the ABC. Eventually SBS got back to me and I got a day, a day turned into a week, a week turned into a month, and at the end of that month my then-boss said to me, ‘Would you like to stay on as a casual?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Would I like to stay on? Are you going to pay me to do this?’

You’ve done a lot of reporting on Australia’s African community and focus on race and cultural identity in your work. Why is that important to you?

I did find, and I still do, that the way in which the media reports on certain communities is very stereotypical, very lazy and problematic. And I noticed that when it was to do with certain groups, the principles around journalism sometimes weren’t there, and that’s doing audiences a disservice. It’s also doing our industry a big disservice, because our job is to present the facts and not lean on stereotypes and all that stuff that further reinforces divisions. So that’s one of the reasons why I focus on that, just simply because I’m interested in holding our profession accountable, and ensuring that we are responsible with how we go about reporting on all stories.

What was it like working for the SBS?

It was great. It was essentially my dream job, to be honest. And I got pretty lucky, because who gets their dream job straight out of uni? I got to cover every story imaginable. I’ve done everything from war crime stories, to stories about the homeless in Melbourne, to stories about space. And I brought the same principles to everything. I didn’t discriminate. I didn’t go into a war crime story differently to how I’d go and do a story about the price of milk going up, for example.

What was it like working as a journalist overseas?

There’s some journos who are ambulance chasers, just love the action. I’m much more interested in the stories that happen on the sidelines, because those are the ones that really shape and impact movements. When I was in South Sudan, I went there six months after independence. That in itself was incredibly fascinating. I’d never been to a country that was so undeveloped in my entire life, that was literally starting from scratch. The levels of illiteracy were some of the highest in the world –  I think at the time it was 85 per cent of the population, and that’s extraordinary. There were pockets of violence and conflict at the time, but that wasn’t why I’d gone there. I went to look at South Sudanese Australians who were moving back and why they were moving back. I met this one guy who was meeting his mother for the first time in 30 years. I mean, can you imagine?

Most memorable moments in your career?

I guess my most memorable are the stories that I’ve done where there’s been an outcome that has changed the course of people’s lives. That’s a power [journalists] have. And that’s the reason why I still keep doing what I keep doing, and that’s why I love it so much. When I did a story at the start of the year for The Saturday Paper around the way the media was covering the so-called Apex gang, and the dog-whistling politics around that, and the racism… seeing that story influence how other media organisations started reporting on that, getting a call from the Department of Social Services saying they hadn’t considered some of the things that were brought up… I mean, these are people who directly change policies, these are the people who actually change decisions and have an impact on people’s lives. That’s a f***ing win.

How do you cope with the stress of the job?

There is no such thing as down time. Your brain never switches off. You don’t switch off news. This morning I was just thinking and reading about all this Charlottesville stuff and just going, ‘Gosh.’ I mean, how do you respond to that? When things get overwhelming, you have people who you talk to. And then you just get on with it, and you figure out how best to responsibly inform. But that’s pretty much it. I don’t know, I’m still working on the stress thing. Maybe yoga. Or meditation. I hear it works for Oprah.

What advice would you give to young journalists trying to break into a similar round to you?

Being a journalist isn’t about the glamourous side or your byline. It’s such a privilege to get to tell people’s stories and to try to tell them as truthfully as possible. Hopefully by telling those stories you get to influence policy or you get to influence the outcome of people’s lives. Some of the best journalists are the ones you never really hear about.