Be clear on why you’re in this

Journalists may not win battles. But they show the truth of wars that cannot be won, says Jo Chandler.

Early this year, freelance journalist Jo Chandler travelled to northern Nigeria to investigate the delivery of vaccinations during the devastating outbreak of Polio and the regime of Boko Haram.

In the blazing heat, amongst nurses, citizens and political figures, Chandler encountered people with compelling stories of endurance and survival.

Jo Chandler at her Storyology keynote. “In order to gain access and intimate insight into these unfamiliar realities, we need to humble ourselves and stand back and take the time to reflect,” Chandler says. Tim Marshall/The Walkley Foundation

Yet, when it came time to file, the seasoned journalist found herself doubting whether her words would justly portray their reasons for survival.

She felt like she was a pawn in a local power play of world leaders.

“I had a bit too much time, I guess, to reflect,” she says.

But this reflection led Chandler to draw an important conclusion about powerful storytelling in a digital age.

She realised powerful stories may be produced from the frontline or the back of an office—so long as the writer remembers why they first picked up a pen.

“In an age where everyone is a broadcaster and a teller of their own truth, [journalists ask] what is our job?”

Though her physical presence in Nigeria brought the Australian journalist closer to the story than her colleagues back home could get with Google, their comparative distance wasn’t a barrier that couldn’t be overcome.

Much like she might have to work for one, two or three weeks on the road to get such a story, they had to find a way to connect with the situation from the other side of the world.

Jo Chandler. Tim Marshall/The Walkley Foundation

In a way, the means of achieving the feat was the same: A journalist must learn how to step into another individual’s cultural reality.

Chandler describes this process as an important “rite of passage”.

“In order to gain access and intimate insight into these unfamiliar realities, we need to humble ourselves and stand back and take the time to reflect,” Chandler says.

“These moments barely ever appear in the stories that we write, and yet, they are absolutely fundamental to the authenticity of the stories that we find.”

In the industry for just over thirty years, Chandler started out as a cadet working for country newspapers. When she started out, she produced stories on a typewriter.

While the modern media landscape has changed significantly since then — fewer journalists have the luxury of reporting from the field — Chandler doesn’t believe the value of journalism has been diminished.

She believes in the power of journalists, and the great responsibility they carry.

“My byline gave me authority to step into other people’s lives, other realities, to meet extraordinary individuals and visit boardrooms, laboratories and places of power and remote landscapes,” she says. “Places that were out of bounds to most citizens.”

But with this rare access comes the responsibility to respect the people and the communities visited, because the footprint left lasts a long time.

“The most important thing is to become the observer, not to become the participant,” she says.

“Listen for inconsistencies and test the rigour of the story.”

“The most powerful of these narratives could challenge companies and governments and institutions. And our views of ourselves as a community, as a society, and our place in the world.”