Sally Sara on being an ABC Foreign Correspondent
Thursday, 26 April 2012 13:29

sallyImagine a job where you are asked whether you would like to work in a "kinetic or non-kinetic" environment. And when you seek clarification you are told that "kinetic means you're shot at more often".

This was one of the stories told by the ABC's Sally Sara, who recounted her experiences of being a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in 2011 before an audience of several hundred people in UC's Boiler House Lecture Theatre.

Sally Sara

Sally Sara tells of filming in the field in Kabul. Photo:Rod Taylor

Sara's compelling reports on radio and television have always teemed with empathy and humanity. She became a foreign correspondent at the age of just 29, when she was the ABC's first woman dispatched to Africa.

She talks about her passion for journalism, despite the massive workload, which saw her working 16 hour days servicing 11 radio and TV programs, as well as News 24 and ABC Online. She recalls that being in Kabul was very different from her life in Canberra as a UC student.

Her compassion for the people of Afghanistan is palpable as she tells of their struggles and of how eager they are to tell their stories.

"As a woman I had access to the homes of other women, which would have been off-limits to male reporters, and it felt like setting up a pipeline from Afghanistan to Australia as I was able to get a story from a tiny mud hut in Kabul to Sydney."

Apart from the reporting pressures, one constant in her work was fear.

"When reporting outside we had to work as quickly as possible, because there was always the danger of being kidnapped or killed. And going on patrol with the military could be terrifying, especially when walking across areas containing improvised explosive devices. One time a marine had his legs blown off just five minutes before I arrived to go on patrol."

The risk of psychological trauma was also extreme. Sara shows a distressing picture of a 12 year old girl screaming in terror as she stands among the bodies of people, including members of her family, who had been killed moments earlier by a suicide bomber. This was a story she covered in December 2011, and was particularly disturbing.

"The ABC is regarded as a world leader for trauma support and we all have assigned counsellors who we debrief with over the phone. This is especially important because we often work alone, rather than in teams, so there isn't always a colleague to talk to at the end of the day".

But there were lighter moments too.

"I visited a small Australian base in Uruzgan Province where soldiers had been living in primitive conditions and hadn't been able to shower for more than 90 days. When army engineers came through and offered improvements, and asked whether the soldiers wanted showers or Internet access, the overwhelming response was: 'Internet!'".

At the end of a fascinating and sometimes confronting presentation, Sara left UC journalism students with the following "tips from a Journo Nanna", based on her 19 years at the ABC:

Be the best journalist you can be no matter where you're sent – have the local paper following you for story leads, rather than vice versa.

Think about safety and take calculated risks because dead journalists don't write many stories.

Maintain your two most important books: your contacts list and your diary. Stay in regular contact with your sources, even just to say "g'day".

Be resilient and don't be discouraged by rejections – every journalist has them.

Reputation is everything. If your sources lose faith in you, you will lose them.