Telling stories and making history

Journalist Tiania Stevens

Australian Journalist Tiania Stevens has travelled the world as a news reporter. She was an embedded defence reporter covering the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 alongside US and British troops, which led to her becoming the first British journalist to travel from Kuwait to Baghdad with American troops.

Tiania has also achieved two front pages in the London Times for her Iraq War coverage.

Right now Tiania has retired from the front lines of journalism and is teaching News Writing and Ethics at the University of Sydney, and was happy to answer a few questions for Off Campus.

Interview by Sean Campbell @Sean eamonn campbell

Sean Campbell: What is your most recent role in the media/Where did these roles take you?

 Tiania Stevens: I have been teaching journalism since 2015. I started teaching as a way to use my experience and to pass on what I’d learned to a new generation of reporters. Before I started teaching at the Queensland University of Technology in 2015, my experience as a journalist was in South Africa and the UK – where I was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan covering the war and aftermath. I worked at the Mirror Group and on The News of the World. Before my break with the UK nationals, I worked on a regional newspaper where I covered defence issues, and in particular following 9/11.

What has been more valuable, education or experience? 

Nothing beats on the ground experience. Classroom learning is great, but you can’t duplicate what you might face in the real world. 

Journalism education is important and it’s rare now that someone will walk into a reporting job without a degree or some kind of training. Education gives you social skills, mixing with fellow students and academics, it gives you the basics of how to write a news story and file online/social media and or present to camera. However, journalism education is focused on key aspects of the job and is condensed into a short time-frame.

On the ground, you learn to deal with all kinds of people, as well as work to strict deadlines, there is no room for excuses in the newsroom, you have a deadline, you must stick to it. The pace is so much faster than in a classroom. Most of these skills you will acquire on the job, but you have to be prepared for a hard slog when you first start out. As I was warned on my first day at the News of the World: There are a hundred people waiting for your job.

What do you see as the most challenging aspects of the job? 

The fast pace of news. There is little time to ask questions, you need to get the story, write the story and publish. If you can’t cope with the pressure, you shouldn’t be working as a reporter.

You also have to be prepared for the emotional toll reporting can have on you. Some stories can be traumatising, and there is often little support in the newsroom.

You have to be prepared to work long hours. You must love news, talking to people, love investigating.

There are many challenges, but there are also many wonderful reasons why being a journalist is incredible. You get to be part of breaking news, the first to tell your audience what is happening in their community or the world. It’s an amazing feeling to see your work published. You are reporting history, no matter how local a story is. You also get to help people tell their story of tragedy, wins, etc.

Has the industry changed since you started? 

The industry is always changing, regardless of technology. What stays the same are the basic principles of journalism – the basics of writing, interviewing and ethics. This is why journalism training is important; without it, the fundamentals are not there. It is sad now that what we read online is so often badly written or inaccurate. What has changed is that we now have mobile phones that can record everything, it feels that old school journalism is sometimes redundant. I remember speaking to people who were reporters in the 70s/’80s and they told me that they would call their stories in from a street telephone box – no internet/computers/phones. 

What are your greatest achievements in journalism?

That has to be my two front pages in the London Times. The stories are from Iraq. Also, I was the first British journalist to travel from Kuwait to Baghdad with American troops overland. The MoD [Ministry of Defence UK] were annoyed at a story I wrote so I called the Pentagon and asked if I could go with the Americans to Iraq! They said yes and organised it. 

Do you have any advice for future journalists? 

Don’t be afraid! Ask questions, even the hard ones. If you think something could be a story, it probably is. Be nosy. If you are in a pub, out walking, at a cafe, keep your eyes and ears open. The best stories come from those who don’t realise the significance of what they are saying. Keep a contacts book – you never know when you might need the same person again for a follow-up or new story. Be obsessed with the news, not just local/Australia but world news. And travel! See Australia, but also the world. There are stories everywhere, you just have to be nosy and keep your eyes open. I always say don’t look down – look up. 

What books would you recommend for a future journalist?

I have so many that I call my favourites. 

I became a journalist and went to South Africa to work because of one man: Donald Woods. He wrote Asking for Trouble about his time as an editor in South Africa during the ’60s and ’70s before he and his family fled the country because he backed abolishing apartheid. 

Another book I love is One Crowded Hour by Tim Bowden about an Australian journalist/photographer who covered the Vietnam War. 

I love books that tell a story about someone who has been a reporter in the past. 

Dispatches by Michael Herr is a classic. 

If I could travel back in time to a conflict to report on, it would be Vietnam and then Bosnia. With Vietnam, it was the last war where journalists were not shackled to a military press officer and had more freedom. Journalists were also freer to spend time with both sides of the conflict. 

I think new journalists should understand what being a journalist entails, we can learn a lot from the past about how to find stories before the onset of the Internet and phones. 

Is there a famous quote that motivates you? 

There is one quote a former editor included in a letter to me when I was struggling as a trainee journalist:  “Don’t let the bastards get you down”.

A little extra advice from Tiania:

  • Chase the media outlets and align yourself with one, let them know you want to work there, be consistent, and call them constantly, and always let someone know what you are doing.
  • Travel everywhere, local, overseas, it doesn’t matter. And try not to stay in your comfort zone.
  •  Read everything, and write about anything. You need to know what you want, and if you want to tell stories and make history.
  • Education is vital, news has changed so much It is impossible to be trained on the job now, it’s too fast-paced and there’s never enough people to cover a trainee.
  •  Focus on the basic principles of journalism while you are in a classroom.
  • Try to focus on how to find a story. This isn’t taught enough on the job, or in the classroom. You first need to figure out what a story actually is, or you will be left in the newsroom not knowing what to do. 
  • Get into the newsroom early, and always leave late. If you have a first in, last out attitude you will always get the first story that comes through the door that day.
  •  To be a journalist, you need to love the news, you need to be obsessed with the news.

Featured image: SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN — A Marine with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), Camp Pendleton, Calif., leads a column of Marines to a security position after seizing a Taliban forward-operating base Nov. 25. Marines from the 15th and 26th MEU are currently deployed to the region in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Thirteenth MEU Marines, embarked on USS Bonhomme Richard, left San Diego Dec. 1 enroute to the Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Marine photo by Sgt. Joseph Chenelly. Photo: © Public Domain/WikiMedia Commons/File:U.S. Marines humping in Afghanistan, November 2001.jpg/Created: Taken on 25 November 2001

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