‘Be brave, find your passion’: how to find your place in journalism

The Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award was given to Four Corner’s Nick McKenzie and The Age’s Richard Baker at the Melbourne Press Club’s 2017 Quill Awards.
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Investigative journalist and podcaster Richard Baker has won five Walkley Awards and 15 Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards. He talks to Nadia Alaoui about his work, and offers tips on how to gain a foothold in the industry.

How did you get started as a journalist? 

Going through school, I quickly realised that I was never going to be a mathematician or anything like that, and my skills were in communication and writing. I was lucky enough when I was in year 10 that my family lived in the UK for a few months, and there are a lot of good newspapers in London. So I found myself reading about people and stories I had never heard about before.

I found the writing, in many cases, good enough to hook me in. I thought, oh, I’d like to do that … So, yeah, I guess I knew from perhaps when I was 16 onwards that [journalism] was a career path that I wanted to pursue.

What has been your most dangerous experience?

No one thing comes to mind. Sometimes when you write stories on crime, corruption and things, there’s dangerous individuals or dangerous groups that you can worry about. Over the years, there has been a handful of times where you receive a nasty phone call or, you know, a threat or something there. So, you take some precautions, be careful, and I’d be cautious about watching [my] movements, and how [I] go to work and ask myself, is there anyone around following you and things. But, still, they’re really few and far between … the biggest danger in Australia is the defamation law for journalists. That’s our biggest stress.

How do you deal with that stress?

As journalists and particularly investigative journalists, the Defamation Act is loaded against us. We don’t have to do anything wrong to lose, and if someone you’re writing about has money or access to money, you can be tied up in knots for years.

The company has been great in backing us in those situations, and we’ve had the best army of lawyers. Colleagues are supportive, and so are your competitors, because we all face the same threats in terms of those legal things and those pressures. You draw strength from that, and obviously, your family and friends.

I said to [award-winning journalist] Nick [McKenzie] one day on a story that had some legal issues, “Journalism got us into this, and it’ll get us out of it”. So, you keep working, and you prove your case.

‘Be brave, find your passion’: how to find your place in journalism
Snapshot from The Age: Richard Baker is a busy investigative journalist.

Has there ever been a time where you have been wrong?

Oh, yeah. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes in stories before. The simplest thing is to own up to it straight away, admit it, fix it and apologise to the person you’ve made a mistake about. Sometimes, a mistake can be a tiny thing that doesn’t detract from the story.

We’ve got a duty to correct it quickly, get on the front foot, own it, apologise, and explain it to the reader. And you make sure that learn from it, where was the fault in our checking processes on this?

But everyone’s human; mistakes get made. It’s essential to own up to them. They’re few and far between – you always double check and triple check. I still wake up at night thinking, does that guy have a double A or just one in his name?

If those things are still worrying you 20 years into your career, generally, you’ve got a mindset and a way of working that is pretty rigorous; your chances of making grave errors are minimised. I’m a big believer that if in doubt, leave it out.

What has been the highlight of your job?

A couple of different things, and they’re not stories that have always led to big awards or anything … but they’re the ones that have an impact.

You can see the effect on the people that you’ve worked with or written about. For example, back in 2013, we did some stuff on abuse in Yooralla, a residential supportive care provider for vulnerable and disabled people. There’s a lady there, a client of theirs called Jules, who had cerebral palsy and had been raped by her carer. She was very vulnerable.

I went out and had a cup of tea with her every week for months, and she went on camera and told her story. Another male resident, who’s also disabled there, Craig, was the one who dobbed the guy in. Seeing the empowerment they got through being brave and stepping up to tell their story – and the emotional impact of seeing this wheelchair-bound woman who struggles to speak properly tell her story – and be brave enough to do that, was amazing.

‘Be brave, find your passion’: how to find your place in journalism
Richard Baker

What is your advice for a journalist just starting?

You can control how your career progresses through what you do and how hard you want to work.

Be straight with people, hear them out, be fair, don’t mislead. You’ll find that, even if you’ve written stories that have been adverse or not good for a particular person or organisation, [if] you’ve gone about it in the right way, they will respect the process and the opportunity. They’ll come back to you and give you a story down the track, work with you or recommend you because of how you do it.

People who don’t have integrity or who double-cross get found out quickly and flame out … you don’t get anywhere unless you are a good people person because stories always come from people. An amazing secret document doesn’t decide the leak itself – someone chooses to do that.

But suppose you want the real story and the person to speak of something emotional or painful for them. In that case, you have to put time into that relationship to build trust.

Get involved in things you’re interested in – find your passion. What do you enjoy doing? Do you like writing? What do you want to write about? Then, what are some publications or platforms that might be interested in taking something from me?

Be brave, don’t be shy, it’s hard in COVID, and things like that, but in regular times, make that call.

There are different things you can get involved in right now that showcase your skills. Build your skills, and then when you go to interview for a job, you’ve got a portfolio behind you. It’s just about being proactive. And giving it a crack because the worst thing anyone can ever say to you in journalism is no … once you’ve got that foot in the door, you know, the ball’s in your court.