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Live life, love work – a career masterclass

The very talented Karen Ashford has recently left the position of South Australia’s sole SBS journo, camera person…..the list goes on!

Just before leaving the job she lived so well for three decades, Karen shared with Stories Well Told her wisdom about the joy and challenges of working as a journalist in challenging times.

It’s 9am and journalist Karen Ashford is already three hours into her day.  A former bedroom turned studio in her suburban home is where she works long hours every day.

Looking around it’s full of computers, microphones, cameras and an abundance of hard drives.  Books, pictures and Karen’s impressive array of awards also line the walls.

Beyond the walls of the studio, Karen’s house is warm and cosy and full of art.  The walls of the wooden structure tell photographic stories of Karen’s life.

Her garden is fruitful and self-sufficient and as we talk we take time to feed her beloved chooks.

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Karen’s surroundings truly reflect her bright, capable and creative personality.

As an experienced journalist and mentor, Karen is inspirational and a role model for many young budding journalists.  When you talk to Karen one thing is very clear – she has integrity in abundance.

From 16 to 46 years-old, Karen Ashford has dedicated her work life to honest journalism.  And as she transitions into corporate life, she is taking the time to reflect on her 30 years of service to the industry she loves.

Karen started her career as an ABC cadet and ended up working there for six years.  After some time as a government media advisor Karen then landed her dream job working for the SBS.

Karen was the sole SA Correspondent for SBS for the past ten years and describes her career choice as “partly by accident, partly by design”.

Karen says her inquisitive mind and sheer curiosity led her down the path of journalism as her passion for sharing “real people stories” grew.

“It was my natural enthusiasm and determination to always know more that drove me,” she says.

Karen is a prime example of the modern journalist – working 6 am to 10 pm and weekends.

A self-confessed workaholic, she is completely dedicated to the people behind her stories and the significance of giving them a voice.

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“As journalists, we have a responsibility to accuracy and balance. I believe in presenting without fear or favour and reporting the facts as you see them,” she says.

Karen acknowledges Peter Hocking as a grounding influence on her own journalistic ethics.

“Peter was fabulous at stripping away the extraneous stuff to find news that hits the mark and peaks the audience’s interest. He taught me how to create interesting, not just newsworthy stories,” she says.

Karen also accredits Lissa McMillan of SBS in Sydney for preparing her for working alone in a newsroom and grasping the process of moving from TV to online and radio.

“Lissa was a fabulous mentor, so supportive. She taught me about trust and the value of good communication,” Karen says.

For Karen, her fondest moments as a working journalist were her visits to remote aboriginal communities with NITV and SBS.

“I most enjoyed my trips to the APY lands and giving a voice to the remote Aboriginal communities. For me, it’s all about getting off your butt and talking to the real people,” she says.

It’s the big decisions at the most critical moments in a journalist’s career that determine what kind of career they will have and how they will be remembered.

Karen describes the most testing aspects of journalism as ensuring all stories are fairly presented and working hard to uphold the right of journalists to thoroughly report any story.

“It can be difficult to achieve but it’s paramount that journalism is not outwardly judgmental and allows the audience to assess the facts themselves without influence,” she says.

“The only exception I consider defendable is when you are giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless.

“If one side gets wide coverage, it’s important to give the other side a platform as well.”

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Karen believes that a journalist’s integrity can be tested when subjected to political and corporate pressure.

“It’s challenging when you’ve got organisations who don’t want the truth to come out and actively work to stop the balance. This is where one’s own integrity must play a part in deciding how to report,” she says.

At SBS, Karen struggled most with the workload and the rising focus on trendiness that has changed the nature of journalism.

“We’re facing a push for populism that I struggled with. I’ll be interested to see how SBS manages the balance and maintains its integrity in the future,” she says.

“I hope SBS will maintain a core of integrity and commitment to it’s Charter.”

Karen says her workload was immense and the pressure to handle it all was tough.

“I did filming, technical stuff, reporting, research, production, editing, engaging with talent, thinking about radio, television, online, tweeting, social media, deadlines!! It’s the juggling – it’s about how many balls you can keep in the air at once,” she says.

As an ambitious female journalist, Karen faced many moments of adversity in a business with a gender pay gap in excess of 21 per cent.

“It was hard. It’s tougher for females to be taken seriously and the females in leadership today have worked very hard to carve a path for the rest of us to be empowered,” she says.

In a male dominated field, Karen says she fought against the cultural perceptions of women journalists that she faced, particularly overseas and in certain Aboriginal communities.

“I’m good enough to do this on my own! I don’t need a bloke to hold my hand. I’ve worked around cultural perceptions that have restricted me from certain areas based on my gender,” she says.

Karen is positive about the future for female journalists if they manage to follow in the footsteps of emerging females in leadership roles.

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“There’s nearly always a solution to the adversity. Be passionate, considerate and creative and there will be a way to get the story,” she says.

For the future of digital journalism, Karen is concerned about the calibre of news as we face a growing shift from traditional journalism to digital and social media.

“Social media and traditional journalism are rubbing against each other and news reporting risks being eroded by the desire to compete for trendiness and popularity,” she says.

Karen is concerned much news is being dumbed down to pave the way for obtaining ratings and is losing the analysis we need for a thoughtful society.

Karen has made the move from journalism to corporate communications taking on a role at Flinders University as Director of Media and Communications.

“I ain’t getting any younger! Although I’ve loved it, I’m slowing down the pace and planning to use my brain more than my brawn. Journalism is hard yakka,” she says.

In her downtime, Karen indulges in the more tangible creative practices in life in her kitchen and garden.

“Radio stories you hear and then they vanish! Creating something delicious is physical and I can look back and appreciate that I created it. It’s grounding to really get your hands in the dirt – literally and figuratively,” she says.

With the chance to share some wisdom with her younger self at the beginning of her career, Karen would tell herself to take more downtime for travel and to study as much as she could.

“Travel broadens your horizons and brings you into contact with people that impact how you work as a journalist. I would tell myself not to think I’m indispensible! Make more time for myself,” she says.

Reflecting on her own journey, Karen’s greatest message to new journalists is the importance of integrity and never compromising your principles.

“Don’t do the things you think people want you to do and never do the cheap story if you’re twisting the truth or applying a sensationalist spin,” she says.

Karen believes in being the journalist you want to be and doing the right thing by your talent.

“Sensationalism risks damaging your reputation as a fair, unbiased and capable reporter with the long-term impact of people at heart,” she says.

She stresses the power of maintaining contacts by respecting their story and reporting fairly.

“If you wreck the trust of people who share their stories with you, you might as well not be in the business,” she says.

Journalism has lost an honourable hard working pioneer but Karen Ashford will now spread her knowledge and experience into Flinders University.

Her decades of experience and her dedication to accurate reporting have left hundreds of stories for budding journalists to enjoy and admire.

As she moves on to the next chapter in her life, Karen Ashford will no doubt be watching over the industry she loves with interest as it moves much deeper into the digital age.

Images: Brenton Edwards

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