I MET CATH TURNER IN NEW YORK CITY in 2012. A fellow Aussie finding her way in NYC, albeit, Cath had much more street smarts then I. She had travelled the world as a reporter, had covered some of the most iconic stories of our time, finding herself in NYC she had an energy like no one else I had ever met. A pocket rocket with a million stories to tell; I knew Cath was adopted as baby. Born in Vietnam & growing up in rural Australia, and now making her mark on the world; I had huge admiration for that. But that huge admiration quadrupled plus some, when I was lucky enough to attend a screen of a documentary Cath had made, on her story from Vietnam and beyond; 'So Close, So Far Away'. I don't even know the words to explain it with any justice, so I urge you to watch it yourself, the full documentary will play in the side bar below. I think Cath has summed up the best description of her below; A Survivor, Surrounded By Love.
NAME: Cath Turner
TITLE(S): Television Reporter, CHANNEL 7
How would you describe yourself in 5 words? A survivor, surrounded by love.
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today? I knew I wanted to be a reporter from about the age of 12 and I can remember the exact moment. I was watching a female reporter on television standing in front of an erupting volcano in the Pacific, talking urgently about the evacuation of nearby villages and I thought, "That looks cool! I wanna do that!" I liked to write, meet new people and I was comfortable in front of a camera - easy, right?!
From then on, everything I did was about becoming a journalist.
I finished high school in Armidale, moved to Sydney and went to university, then studied journalism. My first media job was unpaid, reading the news for a radio station in Townsville. Then I moved back to Sydney and got a job at Channel 9 working in their promotions department, completely unrelated to news! I then earned one of 8 places in the ABC TV series Race Around The World, making 10 40-minute mini-documentaries in 10 different countries in 100 days.
I returned to Sydney and in 2000, I landed my first reporting job with NBN Television, working in their bureaus around the state for four years. Then I moved to Cairns for 7 QLD and ran the news bureau for a year. Then I moved back to Sydney and somehow survived a year of graveyard shifts with Channel 7's Sunrise show.
I was in Kuala Lumpur when Al Jazeera English launched in 2006. After a year working in news production, I was promoted to reporter and sent to Washington, D.C. to cover the 2008 U.S. election. Then I was promoted again to New York correspondent and spent 6 glorious years covering the United States of America.
In 2014, I decided to return to Channel 7 in Sydney and.. here I am.
What is your elevator pitch on what you do? I'm a story-teller. I meet people and watch events and I turn those experiences into small, digestible parcels for television audiences to digest.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago? (If not, what did you think you would be doing?) Yes. I always knew I wanted to be a reporter and I always believed that I would make it happen. It just never occurred to me that I wouldn't! And I always had big dreams and ambitions to be a reporter overseas. I wanted to be and go global. I knew there was more to the world beyond Australia.
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’? Success to me means achieving my own personal goals and I think I've done that.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in? After school, I did a Bachelor of Arts degree, studying English, Economics and Philosophy but I couldn't see how any of those subjects would lead me to a newsroom. So I signed up for an Associate Diploma in Journalism at Macleay College in Sydney. It was the best decision I ever made. Our lecturers were people in radio, TV, newspapers, PR who gave us first hand knowledge and experience. It put me on the right path towards becoming a reporter.
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date? I have been blessed to be a witness to history and talk to extraordinary people and, as cheesy as it sounds, that is reward enough in itself. I am so privileged that I have been entrusted to tell their stories, to be a messenger and conduit to viewers, to show them a part of the world or a slice of life they may never otherwise know about.
My documentary about being adopted was also extremely rewarding. It opened up a new world of story-telling for me and allowed me to really dig deeply into issues and themes that are not only important to me, but which I felt were relevant to others.
Tell us about your workspace (Office / café / couch / aesthetic) what inspires you about your workspace? My workspaces vary wildly. My 'normal' workspace is a newsroom, where I can sit alongside anywhere from 1 other person, to 150 people. Sometimes the constant chatter, phones ringing and TVs blaring gives you the adrenaline you need to push on, it makes you feel like you're a part of a big machine. Other times, I need a quiet space to write and pull a story together. When I'm on the road, my workspace can be a car, a cafe, a makeshift media centre, a hotel or a paddock. It all depends on where I am, what story I'm covering and how strong the wifi signal is!
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey? On a personal level, I have been lucky not to have encountered much prejudice or discrimination as an Asian woman. There was one instance where a senior manager made it known I would never be on TV because I wasn't white. That made me even more determined to make it.
The biggest frustration in my career was when I worked for Al Jazeera English in the United States for 6 1/2 years. Many Americans thought it was a terrorist network. There were many myths and misconceptions which led to interview rejections, verbal abuse and downright ugly behaviour. You just can't change some people's minds once they've made them up.
When was the last time you were overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work / work load? In 2012, I was sent to Connecticut to cover the shooting massacre of 20 children and 6 adults. I was on air live for more than 10 straight hours and I stayed in Sandy Hook for almost a week. I wanted to cry but was afraid that if I started, I wouldn't stop and I had to keep it together for work. TV is a visual medium, so puffy red eyes are a no-no! It was a devastating situation but I had to stay professional. I almost deliberately didn't read too much online or watch too much TV; I was reporting more on what I personally witnessed.
When I got home to New York, almost by accident I saw the front page of a newspaper, which showed the young, angelic faces of all the victims. I started imagining their tiny little bodies being torn apart by bullets and I started sobbing hysterically. I had to take some time off work after that and spent time talking to a therapist. My pain was nothing compared to those children's parents and survivors, but the media was there too and witnessed their grief. I will never forget that story as long as I live.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this gotten more or less as you progress in your career? I am a perfectionist and put a huge amount of pressure on myself. As on-air talent, your successes and failures are not only seen and measured by your peers and bosses but by the public as well, and that creates its own pressure. Over the years, I've learned to trust my instincts and draw on my experience but you never attain perfection and you never stop learning.
Has your career affected your personal life / relationships? If so how? The news industry is a relationship-killer and is littered with the corpses of failed marriages and relationships. Like many jobs, it is intense and demanding. Unlike other jobs, it is often unpredictable at very short notice and inconsistent. Some people say being a reporter is like being a doctor or fireman or policeman - long shifts, running to emergencies, unexpected situations. But those people know that they will eventually go home after a certain number of hours or days, due to safety risks, laws or company policies. Many times, I have jumped on a plane, expecting to be gone for one or two nights, and stayed on the road for up to 3 weeks. Breaking news stories constantly evolve and change direction. Networks spend lots of money deploying crews and want to make sure they get value for their money. It is very difficult to commit to anything in advance; birthday parties, special events, dates, dinners, weekends away are often cancelled at the last minute. For people who work Monday-Friday - ie the vast majority of the population - that gets old pretty quickly.
Some of the work that I have done has been dangerous, in volatile situations. I am addicted to this part of the job but it can be stressful for people in your life. An ex-boyfriend once called me reckless and selfish because I was excited about flying to Louisiana to cover a Category 5 hurricane. I am an adrenaline junkie and love the thrill and unpredictability of big news stories - that is part of my package deal and that isn't always good for relationships.
The honest truth is, I have chosen work over men throughout my entire career. None of them have satisfied or challenged or captivated me as much as my job has. Equally, men have walked away from me for various reasons, either before my thirst for the job became an issue or because it was an issue.
Has your journey at times felt lonely? How? Occasionally, when I am on the road, spending yet another night in a room in yet another hotel chain, and it's just me and my suitcase, I have felt lonely. I've experienced a lot of highs and lows in my career but I've mostly experienced them alone. I've pretty much never had anyone to go home to, to share my day with, to collapse into someone's arms or high five them when I walk in the door. But that feeling of isolation has never lasted long or been overwhelming. Many cameramen and other colleagues have become my friends, my confidantes, my family. They have often saved me from loneliness; we form unbreakable bonds, have each other's backs and experience the same peaks and troughs.
What it all means is that I have become very comfortable and content with my own company. I enjoy my solitude and I know how to pass the time and find a peaceful mental and emotional space. I don't feel the need to settle for anyone just to avoid being alone. I've also learned over time to back myself and trust my instincts.
What causes you anxiety / sleepless nights? If I have a huge event the next day, sometimes I worry that I'll make a mistake on air or miss my flight or there'll be an equipment failure. I have had many nightmares about these kind of problems. If I made a mistake that day, I'll toss and turn that night, beating myself up and agonising over how I could and should have done it differently and worry about how my peers and bosses reacted.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently? No. I can honestly say that every decision I have made throughout my career has led me to somewhere, someone or something even better later on - and to where I am today.
What advice would you give your 21 year old self? Back yourself. Be yourself. Don't take criticism too personally. Don't let anyone else place limits on your ambition and goals. Don't burn any bridges.
Who are some women in business you admire & why? I admire any women who has succeeded in what was, and still is in some ways, a very male-dominated, chauvinistic industry. I admire women who don't rely on their looks, refuse to get caught up in their appearance and the trappings of fame. I admire women who just do their job and do it with compassion and integrity. And I especially admire women who work in the media and have a family at home. It is a brutal, unforgiving industry and anyone who can handle that with children at home is frigging Superwoman.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with? Honesty. Empathy and compassion. Curiosity and open-mindedness. Lack of judgment. Intelligence. The ability to find humour in any situation. Passion.
Work life balance… Does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it? Is this a trick question?! No, it does not exist! The best thing you can do is maintain an awareness of how you spend your time and listen to your body and your mind when it's telling you to ease up or take a break. It's also good to have close friends and family who know you well, who might be able to see the telltale signs of burnout and exhaustion and can gently or firmly pull you aside and tell you you need a spa day.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit? The times when I have thought about throwing it in have usually been after a major disaster or crisis. The media generally reports on bad news, which means I am constantly dealing with loss, grief, death, trauma, sadness, disillusionment, fear and anger. I have covered the Sandy Hook school shooting, the Boston marathon bombings, the Haiti earthquake and cholera outbreak, extreme poverty, the global financial crisis. It can be overwhelming and seep into your personal life. I have fantasised about walking away and going to work in a library or as a bartender.
But I keep coming back - partly because it's all I've done and all I know. But mostly because it's a damn good job: I get paid to travel, meet new people, learn something new every day and write about it. I've also been lucky enough to see and do some pretty cool shit at "work", like reporting on the Oscars, the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska, see a space shuttle launch at NASA, going scuba diving off the Florida Keys!
What is the biggest misconception about what you do? That it's glamorous. Yes, there are definitely glamorous people in the news business who rarely leave the studio and have professional hair and make up artists and a wardrobe stylist. And the finished product on television can look pretty slick, too. But what you don't see are the 3amwake up calls, the 18 hour days, standing outside in the pouring rain, freezing cold, stifling heat for 1 hour for 2 minutes of television, abuse from the public, harassment by police and security officers, bad hair days and frenzied deadlines.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry? Be prepared to do the shitty jobs, start at the bottom, work your way up. Be patient and persistent. Watch and read the work of journalists you admire and respect. Get used to working in a team. Don't expect to get rich. Stay humble. Don't believe the hype. Listen.
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what? I have a strong work ethic and once I decide I want to do something, I'm very determined and it's difficult to distract or dissuade me. But, relating back to an earlier question, I wish I had been better prepared for the toll it takes on personal relationships. Maybe I wouldn't have tried so hard to have both, and instead accepted that if I was going to make it in the media, I would have to make some sacrifices. I probably could have avoided some heartache for both myself and other people.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be? I want to be remembered as a fair, kind and just reporter and a thought-provoking writer, who was never afraid to laugh at herself or throw herself into any news situation.
I would also like to be thought of as a loyal, honest and reliable friend and colleague, who would do anything for the people she loved.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)? I strongly believe in the road to success is long and lonely. I also believe women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as men, when they are usually three times better.
Women are born networkers and I think it's important to know there are like-minded females just trying to get it done. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it is a wasted opportunity if we don't lean on each other, draw strength from and inspire each other and share our experiences.
What are some of your favorite quotes?
- Silence is better than bullshit.
- Close some doors. Not because of pride, incapacity or arrogance, but simply because they no longer lead anywhere.
- You will always be too much of something for someone: too big, too loud, too soft, too edgy. If you round out your edges, you lose your edge.
- A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.
- Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
- As I grow older, I pay less attention to what people say. I just watch what they do.
- Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.