Telum Media spoke to Danielle Robertson, a Freelance Journalist, who has recently worked as a correspondent in Africa and the Middle East. She shared about how she got her start in TV and video journalism, working from warzones and pulling together packages on the fly, and advice for PRs in pitching to freelance reporters.
How did you get your start in journalism?
I have always had a passion for storytelling and journalism. I always watched the news growing up and knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. I started doing internships, as is normally expected within the industry. Internships are mainly to learn and grow, and then use your new skills to apply for jobs. I wrote online articles for Nine and worked on digital teams for television as well. I started as a Weather Presenter at Sky News, where I had been producing for the weather channel. I taught myself how to present and made my own showreel. I learnt how to do live crosses and became confident in front of the camera.
From there, I wanted to do news and I ended up opening the North Queensland Bureau for Sky News and running that, which was a really good training ground. They sent me up to North Queensland with cameras and lights, and they said go run the bureau. I started as a Reporter there and that's where I learnt a lot of my skills. Interestingly, Cairns has a lot of world stories such as crocodile attacks and the Great Barrier Reef, so there ended up being a lot of interest from international channels. The morning after I arrived, I woke up and somebody had been eaten by a crocodile, so they asked me to go to the police station and start doing interviews and lines. It became a week-long story
and channels from all over the country flew in for the story. I didn't have a crew and didn't even know how to use a camera at that point. I was writing, filming, presenting, doing live crosses, processing, cutting, and sending the packages myself.
What does a day in your life as a Freelance Journalist entail?
The first thing I do in the morning is check WhatsApp messages and emails for any international requests that have come in overnight. Obviously, check the news, then I'll either spend the day in an office or I'll spend the day filming interviews for a feature I have already organised or I will work on interviews and stories that have been pitched and approved. It's different every day but always really busy. Most people say my life is "organised chaos".
You have recently returned from The West Bank in the Middle East, covering the war, and have also reported from Morocco during the earthquakes earlier this year. What sorts of challenges did you face in reporting from these regions, and how did you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges was being on my own as a freelancer. So, I had to organise everything in terms of the flights, accommodation, who I'm interviewing, where I'm going, what I'm going to do each day, who I'm going to pitch to, and other logistics. Obviously in a war zone and during a natural disaster, getting around is always a challenge with closed roads and borders and the danger of leaving an area and not being able to re-enter. I had to take it day-by-day. For example, during the earthquake in Morocco, I followed the story of a brother and sister who were going back to their home to check if it was still standing. They were an hour away from where I was staying in Marrakesh and by the time I had finished filming, writing, and editing, it was too late to get back, so I just had to stay there with them.
When I saw what was happening in the Middle East, I couldn't sit there and watch what was happening, and I thought the one thing I could do in this situation was tell people's stories. In a warzone, safety was my main concern, making sure I wasn't spending too long somewhere, leaving if it got unsafe, and always going with someone that I know. Whilst I am on my own, I do have a lot of contacts, so I'm not always completely solo. Another challenge is translating. I speak a little bit of Arabic but want to make sure I can still connect with the people I interview. Having someone with you to interpret is important, as is trying to be empathetic of your interviewees and their situations. I try not to rush things, even when I'm on deadline. Other environmental challenges include trying to file and make deadlines with limited resources, sometimes sitting in a crumpled building, with dust everywhere and one power outlet that works.
Whilst working as a Freelance Correspondent, you shot, edited, and scripted your own television packages. How did you learn these skills?
The university course that I did at UTS taught me a lot of skills. In the first year of uni, they gave us a TV story and a camera at 9am and said it was due by 5pm. So when I went into work, I already knew how to use editing software. Of course, I would love a team to help, but I think in this industry it's really hard because there is a small pool of people who are sent to cover these big stories and I just came to a point where I was like, I'm not going to wait around to have my dream career, I'm just going to make it happen.
You have also worked on documentaries, including 'The Cape' about the disappearance of a father and son in Cape York and 'Rose Gold' about the Australian Men's Basketball team, the Boomers. What are some of the tools you swear by as a video journalist and documentary maker?
I've used quite a wide range of cameras, including the Sony FS7, which is a bigger documentary camera, and then I spent thousands of dollars on lights. For documentaries, you have more time so you have a bigger camera and a bigger setup. Now that I'm getting more into these situations where you have to be quick and nimble, I am actually using a DJI Osmo Pocket, which is a little handheld camera the size of your palm. It's in 4K and it's stable so I use it for the overlay and visuals. It's great if you have to leave a situation quickly and don't have time to pack down all the lights and equipment.
In terms of skills, I think overall if you're going to do anything, you have to have the passion and know the story to its core, otherwise you're not going to figure out solutions. One of the biggest tools that I have on the road is that I am always writing the story in my head whilst I travel and film. On the plane to Morocco, I spoke to people who had lost their homes. Every single thing I film, I film with an idea of how I would write about what I'm seeing. If you're on a deadline and the package is due at 5pm you can't start writing it at 4.30pm, you have to think about it from the beginning. Another thing is making people feel comfortable talking to you - you have to be friendly and empathetic. A lot of people are very wary of talking to journalists, especially in situations like the war. You have to portray what you are trying to do and understand their perspective.
Do you have any advice for PRs looking to pitch to freelance reporters?
- It has to be some sort of new hook that will pique people's interest. That could be a new statistic, new research, or even just a fresh perspective.
- If it's for TV in particular, have case studies in mind that are available, in order to get the story packaged quickly.
- For PR teams pitching TV, make sure to think visually. For example, can we get access to labs for half an hour to get some shots if a new study is released? Do you have any file vision? Often the lack of visuals is a block for journalists - this is a great story, but how am I going to put this on TV?