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In Conversation with Lindsey Hilsum

Monday 14-09-2015 - 14:29

We caught up with Lindsey Hilsum, at our Student Media Summit, to ask for her top tips for student journalists. Lindsey is a journalist and broadcaster, currently working as International Editor at Channel 4 News.

Lindsey, tell us, why is student media so important?

I think student media is really important because that’s where people are learning how to do it and also because there are lots of issues around being a student in this country which are very important to investigate and report on.  Student journalists are the journalists of the future.

What would you say are the first steps budding student journalists should take?

Starting locally is good.  If you’re reporting for a student newspaper, web site or TV, finding stuff locally and working on that is a very good thing to do – whether you’re looking at who your university invests in, local issues in the town or whatever.  I think it’s also important to look at what interests you, whether that’s a particular country or issues, just start working on it and call people up.  I think one of the most difficult things to do is approach people – I still hate calling people up, I still feel scared.  Be confident in yourself and tell people you’re a journalist, trying to find something out. 

The more you approach people with confidence, the better you’ll feel about it.  It’s amazing how people talk to you.  These days you have spin doctors and all kind of individuals trying to stop you from getting to the person you want to talk to, but I still find it extraordinary how many people will talk to you.  You just have to go for it and not be discouraged.

How can students play a role in foreign reporting whilst still at university?

Well, people go on gap years, away in the summer holidays, they work on voluntary projects and so on.  All of that is food for journalism and occasions where you can write.  These days you can put stuff up in blog posts and practice the craft as you go along.  Also, in universities there are people from all over the world, so if there’s something you’re interested in, there’ll be someone in your university from that place, who will be a wealth of information on trying to help you find information or whatever it is you’re looking for.

Is there distinct advice you’d give for women who aspire to be journalists?

Yes, be confident and do not let boys trample all over you.  I think it’s an advantage to be a woman.  I think women sometimes make their own problems, which can be to do with confidence.  I think men are much more likely to have a go and women are frequently afraid of failing, so they don’t go for it.  You can’t do that in journalism, you just have to go for it.  You may fail, or screw up, but pick yourself up and keep going.  You can’t limit yourself.  You may occasionally come across people who are disparaging or discriminate against you because you’re a woman.  They can sod off, you just have to keep going.  They’re absolutely no point in wallowing around, saying you’re a victim.  You have to do things on the same terms.

Have there been any instances when you’ve failed?

I was at the BBC as a producer, where I was passed over for five jobs as a correspondent.  Most of those jobs went to men.  I figured they weren’t going to give me a job as a correspondent, which I wanted, so I left and went freelance.  It was a disaster.  I was still reporting for the BBC occasionally, but I thought my career was over.  Then I had to take a job with the UN in Rwanda, because I had no money.  The genocide happened in Rwanda and I was the only person there, so I started reporting and kept going for a long time.  Then eventually, I got this job with Channel 4 News. 

In my previous situation I felt I was being constantly put down.  I couldn’t prove it was because I was a woman, but whatever it was, I didn’t fit and so the answer for me was to go freelance again and make it on my own terms, because they weren’t going to give me a job or recognise me.  I say that now as if this was easy and everything will always work out, but of course it doesn’t always.  I was lucky, you can have luck along the way or not, or you change your mind and life takes you in another path, but I don’t think you can wait for someone to give you a job or recognise you.  If you’re a woman, I suppose you have to try that much harder.

Do you think the culture of news rooms and the news industry has changed?

Yes, there are a lot more women now than there were. When I look at the up-and-coming young reporters in the field where I am, there are lots more than there were.  They’re doing really brilliantly.  Now when you go out to Syria or Libya, or wherever, there are just as many young women as young men. 

Could you tell us about a moment when you were really pleased to be a journalist?

I suppose it was the Libyan revolution.  I think one of the things that keeps me going is the feeling of being where history is happening.  The Libyan revolution was one of those moments.  Another was when the Russians annexed Crimea last year, from the Ukraine.  That sense of being there when history is happening – there’s nothing that can beat it.

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