‘Give the powerless a voice’: A foreign correspondent’s tips for aspiring reporters

Zoe Daniel, former ABC foreign correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia and North America. Picture supplied.
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“There is a very important role for media in creating… accountability for leaders, but the other thing is to delve into areas that people might not think about.” Zoe Daniel, former ABC foreign correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia and North America, speaks to Lachlan Abbott.

How did you get interested in journalism?

I got interested in the heyday of 60 Minutes, when it was George Negus and Jana Wendt. My strongest subject at school was English so I was interested in a humanities-oriented career. Although, I was a big horse rider and I wanted to be a vet. But, when I was 15 my science teacher said ‘you’re probably better off doing something you’re innately good at’, which was writing.

How did you break into journalism?

After an internship, I worked at ABC Radio Adelaide… Later, I moved to Lismore as a rural reporter, which set me up for being a correspondent. You have to be self-reliant, have good problem-solving skills, connect with people and pick up things quickly.

Any challenges in your first posting in Africa?

I only just arrived in Johannesburg, and I had to go to Sierra Leone. It was daunting. We had trouble getting a transit visa and I remember the flight was imminent and we were sitting in the car outside the Nigerian embassy – sweating – waiting for the visa to be put in. Once I arrived I had to figure out ways of feeding the vision back and troubleshooting the technical stuff… I ran cables from my computer down the hotel hallway, down the stairs, out a window and then climbed onto the roof to position the satellite phone.

Any career highlights?

The opening up of Myanmar in the early 2010s was a beautiful experience. It was so positive to see people so repressed for so long getting some freedom. It makes watching what’s happening there now very difficult. Also, covering Trump was relentless but it felt like a pivotal and important moment in history.

While in Myanmar, you interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi. Is it true that she wrote your son a letter?

[My son] actually had drawn her a birthday card and I gave it to her. She then wrote him a card back, which is hanging on his bedroom wall.

After the Rohingya genocide and coup in Myanmar, what do you think when you see that card?

I feel sad and disappointed… When she came out of house arrest she made a pragmatic decision to change things from within. In that sense she had to join with the junta to some degree to try and move the needle. In doing that she compromised herself.

Any advice for aspiring correspondents?

Get out into the field as much as you can. Learn how to develop contacts and how to understand complex things that you know nothing about. Be really technically adept. Also, journalism is a human profession and it’s to do with interacting with people and telling their stories. Never lose sight of that.