Telum Talks To: Dr Asha Chand, Associate Dean International at Western Sydney University | Part One

Telum Talks To: Dr Asha Chand, Associate Dean International at Western Sydney University | Part One

By Rhys Evans

Talk to us about your career in journalism.
I began my journalism career working for a daily newspaper, The Fiji Sun, which was shut down at gunpoint during Fiji’s first military coup in 1987. I had started working as a journalist fresh out of high school. My curiosity and ability to question power and authority led me to this role - I used to write letters when I was a little girl for the cane farmers in my village to seek justice for them because the then Colonial Sugar Refining Company was treating them unfairly with the distribution of cane trucks. These farmers could not read or write. I was in primary school and wanted to stand up and fight for them.

I sent in a handwritten application for a newspaper advertised role for a cadet reporter when I was in my final year of high school. At this point in my life, I did not know what journalists did. My older brother saw the advertisement and suggested that I should apply. I interviewed for the role and was successful. I joined the then News Corporation-owned The Fiji Times in 1988. I worked in many roles: Sub-Editor, Sunday Times Editor, features, and Supplements Editor, and was Chief of Staff when I migrated to Australia in 1998 during a condition of crisis. I started studying at the then University of Western Sydney and graduated with my Master of Professional Communication in 2000.

I worked in various media, as a Media Officer in the corporate environment, was the local Avon salesperson and accepted various contracts and casual work until 2003 when I became a full-time academic. I was successful with a scholarship into a PhD in 2006/07. I have been in my role of Associate Dean International in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University since 2018. I applied for this role and was successful. My career highlights during my journalism days have included investigative and exclusive reporting on a variety of issues that led to outcomes in the public interest, such as the fall of corrupt governments, and resignation of ministers, to name a few.

I met several leaders on the global stage including former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, British PM Tony Blair, and Nelson Mandela at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1997. He "noticed" me via my identity card and quipped “The lady journalist from Fiji.” I pushed through the crowd and extended my right hand to him. Mandela grabbed and kissed my hand as I reached out to shake hands with him while being pushed by a mob of journalists and fame seekers!

The biggest career highlight is seeing my former students doing excellent work on the world stage of journalism. Some of these students were first in family to attend university, others came from disadvantaged and Indigenous Australian backgrounds, yet others arrived in Australia as refugees not knowing a word of English. I feel rewarded for my role in shaping their future. I am proud of every student I have taught and every journalist I have trained. The sum of their achievements and how they have carved their lives, makes my small contributions worthwhile.

How have you seen the Australian media landscape change over time? 
The media landscape has changed almost 360 degrees from my own vantage point of being integrally involved in this profession for four decades. The biggest shift has been the transition to the 24-hour digital news cycle and the power shift from the hands of big corporations to ordinary citizens, who now have the capacity to generate news and share information.

The notable positive is that hierarchy is disrupted and dismantled, to give voice to ordinary citizens and communities who can take centre stage of news, share what is happening locally and globally to generate awareness and action. Powerful media companies should never have the power to control the narrative and push their own agendas on political and social issues for their own financial gain.

The negative outcomes are that on the highways to speedy news and information sharing, there is misinformation and disinformation, a lack of fact-checking, ethical decision-making, to name a few. Journalists who are given proper training through education know how to find, filter, and present the best version of facts when they file their stories. The digital and social media platforms allow instant sharing of information and those who do so, do not apply any journalistic filters of cross-check information, seek validation, approve for use of pictures etc, invades privacy without batting an eyelid.

There is an information overload and this has pushed people away from authentic and well-presented journalism works. A sad day indeed as good journalism is a key foundation of democracy and serves the public’s right to know. We need good journalists to sift through information and present the most relevant news so that we can make informed choices and decisions.

In the days when I began my career, we listened, took handwritten notes, knocked on doors, waited for authority sources such as police and politicians, outside their offices or "sought" them out, put them on notice for answers, comment, and interviews. The stories were not published if information had not been cross-checked, validated, or lacked balance. The rule of thumb was when in doubt leave it out. There was general respect for people’s privacy and "innocent until proven guilty" on criminal matters.

Today, in some cases, there is trial by the media, in the way stories get reported and sensationalised. Politicians and those in power control the narrative, using social media channels to present what gets them likes and liking. I have not given up on good practice and am unrelenting in the way I prepare our students for journalism and media industry jobs.

Are there any undervalued skills in journalism?
Journalism is also a reflective practice. Journalists always learn by doing and improve their craft, reflecting on the mistakes they may have made, things and issues they may have overlooked. No story is ever complete and there always will be missing angles. The most undervalued skill is a constructive approach to storytelling. Journalism can also help to find solutions to the world’s problems.

Journalists, while responsible for holding power to account, also can provide a service to society - by being agents of change, bringing hope against despair, help society navigate through the challenges in meaningful and constructive ways. I am trying to drive this change through my teaching as I also reflect on my years of practice and the missed constructive news and solutions stories.

Curiosity is a foundational skill in journalism. I teach my students to develop this skill which can inspire journalists as well as the citizenry to become interested in the happenings around them and in the world. Such deep levels of public engagement can put the profession on notice to do better. Journalists are driven by curiosity - they always have a hunch and must explore deeply until satisfied with their findings. Investigation and research are core attributes of this practice.

Read Part Two of this feature here

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