Over the past 6 months or so I’ve been going through what I like to call “The Uni Student’s Lament”. I’ve been questioning whether I’m still as dedicated to being a journalist as I was in high school. I’ve been questioning whether I’m going to be able to make it through the next two years of my degree. I’ve been questioning whether I’m even cut out for journalism, or if my concern for others and the anxiety I get about being judged will ultimately be my downfall. And I’m really over essays.
This is what was playing on my mind when I went to interview Siobhan McHugh, a tutor and professor at UOW. I met her last year when she taught my Feature Writing class. She is an amazing journalist, a published writer and a recipient of the NSW Premier’s Award. She has so many amazing achievements to her name, but these weren’t the reasons I wanted to speak with her. I wanted to speak with her because in the short time that she taught me Feature Writing, I always got the impression that we shared many of the same values. Values such as empathy and concern which I assumed would hinder my ability to be a journalist, but have seen her become highly successful.
Siobhan is a very skilled interviewer. Over the course of her career she has interviewed members of the Stolen Generations, homeless people and women who were sent to Vietnam to entertain the soldiers, to name a few. In her words “the marginalised”. “The forgotten voices”. She told me that she was always subconsciously drawn to the stories of people who had been largely ignored and wanted to restore recognition of these people. “I never realised there was an actual…logic to what I was doing, I was just attracted to this story and then I’d go after that story but when I sat back after 30 years and started looking at it, in fact they’re all people from the margins.”
At this point you may be asking “why would you choose to interview a professional interviewer?!” and trust me I was asking myself the same question. I was worried about Siobhan judging my interviewing skills, or lack thereof, but her ability to interview someone without making them feel uneasy or put on the spot is one that I would like to be able to replicate, so another motivation in choosing her as my professional was so I could also get some feedback on how I did. In case you’re wondering, my questions were good but I need to work on ice breakers to make the person I’m interviewing feel more comfortable. The weather’s lovely today, is that a new dress?
When I first asked Siobhan to assign herself three personal values, she chose honesty, empathy and kindness, and I saw these reflected throughout our conversation. She is able to talk to people free of judgement and exudes a kind nature that allows people to open up. She respects the experiences of everyone she speaks to and has the ability to identify with them. An interesting point she made was that this ability stemmed from her time as a waitress. “I joke that I started off learning about psychology from years of being a waitress. You can see who the people are who are kind and patient, and you can see likewise difficult customers and the bullies, and you can even observe the relationship at the table. I was absorbing this without even realising it.” As a waitress I can definitely attest to this. I’ve always thought that the way a person treats wait staff says a lot about their character.
The turning point for me in the conversation came when Siobhan referred to her empathy and kindness as an asset in her job. I think I audibly sighed in relief upon hearing that my non-cut-throat nature wouldn’t see me unemployed. The qualifier was that of course there are forms of journalism where being empathetic and honest are not good qualities to have, but my aspirations don’t lie in celebrity journalism, they lie in human rights journalism where having a strong sense of ethics and concern are very important. She also made the point that the changing nature of journalism doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom like I’ve seen it. It’s actually an opportunity to create your own job, and your own deadlines. This can only be a positive for me because I hate deadlines. In fact at this point in time I’m still working on an essay which was due two days ago. Oops.
At the end of our conversation the qualities I had picked up that Siobhan hadn’t mentioned were a sense of curiosity and genuine interest. When I told her this she laughed and said that curiosity was always important in journalism. “I always say a journalist is a licenced sticky beak”. I like this description, because it perfectly encapsulates what journalism is at the core without being harsh or playing on the stereotype that journalists have no scruples and will do anything for the story.
What I came away from this interview with, on reflection, is a much broader understanding of where I’m headed. I know that I want to be in this profession in some capacity, and if it ends up being not in the way that I originally expected that’s ok. I’m 21 and I have so many options and opportunities ahead of me, I just have to hang in there.
I would like to thank Siobhan for taking time out to speak to me, it was so enlightening and interesting.
Find Siobhan here
Find a presentation she did on the importance of audio storytelling here
Find the journal she founded that reviews radio documentaries here