Kerri Ritchie grew up on a sheep farm outside of Melbourne, in a small town of just 200 people. With dreams of becoming a journalist, she found herself at the University of South Australia studying for a journalism degree.
After working hard throughout university, Ritchie was one of a few lucky graduates to receive a cadetship at the ABC in Brisbane. The cadetship jump-started her career in broadcast.
Today she is a senior reporter at the ABC in Melbourne. With an impressive resume of overseas posts – working as an ABC Foreign Correspondent in New Zealand from 2008-2009 and as Australia Network Correspondent in Indonesia in 2010 – Ritchie is a seasoned pro when it comes to broadcast journalism. She has covered major events such as the Samoa tsunami and the recent floods in Victoria.
What is the most important quality in a journalist?
You’ve got to have empathy or you’re never going to be a decent journo. Something that was said recently about Paul Lockyer was that he never burned a talent. People would always come back to him, even if they were talking about something really difficult. That is what we’re there to do, not to judge people, but put both sides of the story up and let the viewer judge for themself and work out what they think, their own opinions.
How do you get people to interview on camera, particularly in different countries where the culture is different?
The nature of the job is difficult. You don’t know these people, you are often asked to talk to them during their most terrible, dire time. You are intruding to a degree. Like in a disaster, when you are going to cover a disaster there is a real fine line, and you have to tread very carefully. When you’re in a different country you especially have to tread carefully; there is so much that can go wrong. It is so easy to stuff it up. You just have to try and let them know that you are going to use exactly what they say, because you can only use what you have on tape. You just get strategies and find ways to connect with people and convince them trust you.
New information comes in constantly during a disaster. How do you deal with that?
The problem with disaster areas is you are often out of mobile range. It’s up to your office to stay up with the details, updating death toll and that sort of thing. You are going around getting the personal experiences that people are going through. You are actually there to add the colour, which sounds terrible in a disaster, but that personal experience, that bit that is going to tug at your heart, makes people realise this is serious, affects people just like as if it happened to you or your neighbors. [The victims] are just human beings going through terrible things.
You have had to report on some very emotional events. How do you keep yourself detached just enough to get the story?
It’s really difficult, because if you keep yourself too detached it catches up with you. I think that it is really hard because you are a human being and you are seeing something that you haven’t seen before—people who have been doing a lot of it, like Sally Sara in Afghanistan, have seen so many disasters. You talk to your friends at the end of the day, and you have a drink. You sit around the pool at your resort and it is like a parallel universe to what is going around outside. You also usually have a holiday at the end of the job. You just learn to manage it, and they do advise you to get counselling, because it is upsetting.
What kinds of things are changing in the broadcast news industry that the next generation of journalists need to pay attention to?
If you want to work in broadcast, you should teach yourself how to shoot and edit. This whole video journalism thing is bloody hard work but it is extremely attractive. It is so cheap for an organisation to send one person instead of three. Sound guys have already gone in a lot of areas. It’s very much just a cameraman and journo now, and the push will still be towards just the journo, sadly. I think the push is on to save more and more money. Making yourself as skilled as possible is so attractive in a newsroom. You can’t be just one thing anymore.
What skills should students be working on now to make themselves more attractive as an applicant for a broadcast position?
You don’t have to go out and spend thousands of dollars for voice training. It’s just not realistic. You have got to be watching the news, and lots of different types of news, to see what is the right fit for you. Start getting some hero journalists you like and watch what it is about their stories that makes you feel like their talking directly to you. Then you can follow their style. You could even get in touch of them and get tips. For radio, listen to lots of radio—start listening to AM on ABC in the morning. It sets the agenda off for the day. It’s on at 8 a.m. for a half an hour, and you can see what radio current affairs is all about. It’s such an excellent, under used service that’s available.
For those students graduating this year what is your advice for them on getting a job?
I remember trying to get stints at my local newspaper and local TV station and nothing was happening. And I just thought, “What am I going to do?” I think you should show that you have tried very hard to get a sense of the job outside of university. You have confirmed it to yourself that you want it by working at a community radio station, community newspapers, putting yourself out there, which is so hard and horrible to do, I remember. Those of us who were chosen for the ABC cadetships were the ones that got up at 4 a.m. to read the community news, making tons of errors, but it gave us a real sense of what we were in for and we still wanted it.
Any last bit of job advice for all journalism students, not just those interested in broadcast?
When you’re applying for things, try to be really creative and give your personal story; make yourself stand out. Everyone has got something about them that is different or unique and makes them who they are or why they want to be a journalist. I read lots of applications that are very by the book, structured and serious. Applications don’t need to be like that. I know mine stood out because I wrote a piece about where I come from, a sheep property in the middle of nowhere. It is extremely competitive, everyone knows that, but it’s not all doom and gloom. You can find ways of doing it if you really want to. You just have to put yourself out there: do work experience, do an unpaid morning at the Herald Sun. Who knows where it will lead you?
Samantha Afetian is a Journalism student at La Trobe University, currently on exchange from San Diego State University in California, and a member of upstart’s editorial team. You can follow her on Twitter: @Sam Afetian.