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Interview: ABC’s Kathryn Diss on Biden’s inauguration and her journey from Curtin to frontline reporter

Alumni News

If you watch or read the ABC, chances are you’ve seen the work of Curtin journalism graduate Kathryn Diss. As one of the ABC’s North America correspondents, in the past 12 months, she has covered several major events including President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the storming of The Capitol Building, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the devastating impact of COVID-19.

Kathryn Diss reporting on the Donald Trump rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the day before the election on 3 November.
Kathryn Diss reporting on the Donald Trump rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the day before the election on 3 November (credit: Ryan Chatterjee, ABC).

In an interview with Diss, we discussed her experiences as a reporter in the US at such an historic time, and how her Curtin degree has augmented her career.

You put together a 7.30 story on Joe Biden’s inauguration. What was it like to be in DC for such a momentous occasion?

It was bizarre because it was a ceremony we’ve never witnessed before. There were a few thousand guests in attendance. They were mainly Congress people, Supreme Court judges, people within the administration, and then of course some performers. But the large part of the day, the celebration side, was held virtually.

I went out and did some early morning dawn shots with my camera operator for my 7.30 story. And it was stark. We had to walk four kilometres from our office to get to the Capitol Building to be able to do those shots because the streets were in complete lockdown. There were National Guard troops, 25,000 of them, positioned with tanks in what is allegedly the greatest democracy in the world! Fences were put up outside of the three pillars of American democracy with barbed wire over the top of them. There were non-scalable fences. All of these security measures taken to ensure that what is normally a democratic process undertaken without a hitch was not hijacked by protestors or ‘domestic terrorists’, as they’ve been labelled.

I wasn’t doing live news coverage during the actual inauguration – my colleague, Greg Jennett, took the reins of coverage during the actual ceremony itself while I worked on my 7.30 story – but watching it take place on TV, it was still a momentous day.

 

Talking about the National Guard, I’d like to ask you about the storming of the Capitol Building. As I understand, you interviewed participants in the protest. How do you prepare yourself to go on camera during such a volatile situation, when you’ve got no idea what what’s going to happen and if it’ll turn violent?

Well, we do training. We learn how to be perceptive of the crowd and to always watch for exit points in the event there is a stampede or someone coming at you with a weapon, for instance. You would’ve noticed if you saw the footage that I was carrying a backpack. That was full of gas masks and equipment, like stab vests and helmets, in case people started throwing projectiles. So, you have to go into that scenario prepared to be able to react to a change in the situation very quickly.

My responsibility as a journalist is also to look after my camera operator because he’s looking through a lens and he can’t see in the periphery. So, when I’m on camera, I’m constantly looking around to make sure there’s no one closing in on him. But we also had a security guard. He’s out of shot, making sure that no one gets too close to us. We have had security with us on big stories since the Black Lives Matter protests in June and for some of the very large election protests. It’s particularly important for a female journalist. I’m smaller than the guys. I have less of a presence.

Kathryn Diss and Cameron Schwarz, walking from the Capitol Building through the streets of Washington DC on Inauguration Day.

Kathryn Diss and her camera operator, Cameron Schwarz, walking from the Capitol Building on Inauguration Day (credit: Jenny Magee).

You just talked about the Black Lives Matter protests. How did the experience in the Capitol compare with reporting on the Black Lives Matter Movement and also the Hong Kong protest movement?

They’re all different. Hong Kong was my first large international protest and there were one million people. At the Capitol, there were tens of thousands, but not a million. The protestors in Hong Kong were welcoming of the media. They were trying to get the message out to the international community to say: “We’re not going to be a free society anymore. We need journalists.” Whereas, here in America, the Trump supporters think we’re the ‘fake news media’.

At the Capitol, the CNN kit was smashed up and burned by the angry mob. Throughout the afternoon covering the march on the US Capitol, I was approached on many occasions by those taking part, asking where I was from and which news organisation I represented. Once I told them I worked for Australian media, they were more comfortable with me but many still listened in when I was crossing live.

In Hong Kong, I felt like the police were relatively calm. It took five months for someone to be shot with a live round of ammunition. Here at the Black Lives Matter protests, it happened within the first few days. They were deeply emotional, passionate crowds. We had weeks of people laying on the streets in protest of brutality against African-American people. For the most part, the protests were huge and peaceful, and I never felt unsafe at the protests that I attended. But that gets lost when there are dramatic pictures of cities burning, like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, right?

I feel like police cracked down more quickly on the Black Lives Matter protestors than the Capitol rioters. I mean, people had just stormed the Capitol and they were walking free. That’s in part because police were overwhelmed and they didn’t have the resources to respond, but someone also said to me: “The difference this time was that the protestors looked like the police officers”. That was a stark comment.

 

Last year, you made national news when you reported on yourself contracting Coronavirus. What it was like to be at first reporting on something that’s playing out around you, and the next thing you know you’re on ABC News Breakfast talking about your own experience?

It was surreal. No journalist likes to be the centre of the story. Originally, I woke up, felt sick, got tested. I spent three days denying that I had it until I called up the clinic. The clinic didn’t even tell me that the test was positive, which just gives you an idea of either how seriously they’re taking the virus or how overwhelmed they were with the sheer number of cases they were dealing with.

The reason why I wrote the piece was to raise the alarm to people of my age that you can get it, and you can get it seriously, particularly at that time when we were six months into the pandemic and people had become lax in social distancing and mask wearing. And then as soon as word got out that I had COVID, many programmes wanted to speak with me and find out what it was like. So many people have it here in the US, whereas in Australia it was still sort of an anomaly.

It’s still actually affecting me. I still have trouble sleeping. My memory recall was affected significantly for several months, where I was quite petrified to do live crosses because I wasn’t sure I’d remember what I was going to say. I still find it harder to remember things than I did before. I was nauseous and sick in my stomach for several weeks after testing negative, which meant I couldn’t eat properly – again, another symptom. I think if people realise that it’s not just, “Oh, I’ve had it for two weeks. I’m okay now” and that it may continue to affect their neurological functions, they will take it a bit more seriously.

 

You studied a Bachelor of Arts with us in journalism, graduating in 2010. What was your experience like studying here?

I took my study fairly seriously, but The Tav was always good fun! From the course perspective, what stuck out for me was the practicality of it. The fact that we had an operating newspaper, the Western Independent, on campus. It was very helpful to have deadlines and produce a product that you could then show as work.

We worked a lot of on-camera. I think we produced documentaries in my second year. We had to organise and film talent and interviewees and then build contact books. All of this stuff is crucial to being a journalist, but you don’t always get that level of practicality at other universities.

I also learned so much from Curtin FM radio station. I did on-air reading and was sent into the field from an operating newsroom. I then got a job there as a news reader and read bulletins, I think, in my second year.

All of these experiences helped me successfully step into my first job after graduation at the ABC in Perth. I was able to be placed in the field from day one. That’s incredibly important in this line of work because we don’t get much time to prove ourselves. So, walking into the office and understanding how a radio show worked, how bulletins were put together, what elements were needed for a story and how to plan a story was crucial, all of which I learned at Curtin. I also had a story idea and interviewees lined up. That went a long way to proving to the editors I was serious about being there. You never expect the stories to come to you: you’ve got to chase the stories burning inside you.

I spent my first year in the metro newsroom learning under seasoned operators before accepting a news reporting position at the ABC’s Midwest and Wheatbelt station in Geraldton, where I spent the next year shooting my own stories as a video journalist and reading my own daily radio bulletins covering news from the region.

Was there any piece of advice that stuck out to you from your degree?

My former tutor always said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “You can’t sympathise with people on every occasion, but you can empathise with them. Don’t ever lose that, or your humility, because once you’ve lost that, you’re disconnected from the people that you’re interviewing.”

He also said to never refer to people as ‘talent’. Always refer to them as ‘interviewees’ or by their name or title. I think this analogy plays out best for a crime or court reporter, because they become so desensitised to seeing a dead body or covering a horrific court case that it washes over them like it’s nothing. At that point in your career, you need to change tack.

Kathryn Diss preparing for a shot outside of Capitol Building.

Kathryn Diss preparing for a shot outside of Capitol Building (credit: Phil Hemingway, ABC).

Do you have any tips for journalism students or graduates who are trying to start their career?

It often comes down to experience. But it also helps to have a decisive plan of what sort of stories you are planning to write, because if you don’t know what you’re going to write about, it’s going to be more difficult. Set yourself deadlines and meet them. Don’t ever miss a deadline. If need be, set yourself two deadlines, so in the event you can’t get an article done, you’ve buffered a couple of hours for the second deadline. I always set myself deadlines and alarms for each of my tasks.

Right now, we are in an environment where we’re being asked to do more and more with less and less. You need to be digitally savvy. You need to be active on Twitter. You need to be multi-skilled. You don’t want to be just a one-trick pony because you can’t do that anymore. You need to know how to write for different platforms and share the right content.

But don’t forget the fundamentals of journalism. If you don’t know how to network, if you don’t know how to pick up the phone and talk to someone, and if you don’t know how to interview someone, you’re not going to be any good at what you do. So, hone those skills from day one. And don’t ever close yourself in to one new source. You need to be listening to a variety of viewpoints to make sure that you’re not just listening or catering to the audience which you attract. Just because I work for the ABC doesn’t mean I only listen to the ABC.

Kathryn Diss covering protests over the election result in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Kathryn Diss covering protests over the election result in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (credit: Ryan Chatterjee, ABC).

You just talked about social media. Are there any other ways that you see journalism changing for the next generation of journalism grads?

I think it’s going to be some kind of on-demand news service, much like what we have with Netflix. This generation doesn’t want to be given the news at a time that suits the news organisation. They want to access it when they want to access it – in their hand, on the train, on their iPad. That’s why we have ABC iView.

So, we have to be smart. We need to figure out ways to make that work from a monetary perspective. ABC is slightly different because we’re government funded, but that’s why other news outlets have paywalls, because people aren’t buying the physical paper.

Finally, where are you hoping to take your career?

Well, that’s a hard one. I’ve still got two years left on this posting. This year, I want to hone some more skills in longform TV current affairs.

I’d always thought that London would be my posting, not Washington, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Ask me in a year’s time. How does that sound?

 

If you‘re interested in hearing more from Kathryn Diss, make sure you follow her on Twitter and check out her articles on the ABC website.

Interested in studying journalism at Curtin? Read more about our undergraduate Bachelor of Arts (Journalism) or our postgraduate Master of Journalism.

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