Jess Hill is a rad human being. If I am totally honest with you, I didn’t know much about her until this morning.
I did know she’s an award-winning foreign correspondent, so I had my preconceived ideas. Maybe a little staunch, probably a little hardened, definitely very intense.
However, I was quite wrong. It may have been a positive side effect of the painkillers she was on after a bike crash with an intoxicated man in Bondi Junction a couple days before, but Jess was a stark contrast.
Hosting a rosy smile, Jess was loose and bubbly and held court with the Macleay journalism cohort for our weekly Wednesday lecture.
Jess recounted her pathway into a flourishing media career from early advertising days to stumbling into travel advertorial writing for a luxury women’s magazine, jetting off to exotic locations around the world on her editor’s dime and taking in the five-star perks on offer.
And that’s where I probably would have remained.
But I’m not Jess Hill.
Apparently drinking champagne in first class isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as Jess tired of the high life and stepped back into economy class to trail the US Presidential Campaign from San Fransisco to Chicago over two months in 2008 for New Matilda, punching out blog posts for $200 a pop.
“I’m tired of all these perks and they are doing nothing for my life,” Jess said. “I’m going to go and get into current affairs, where there are no perks.”
After returning from the US and becoming decidedly unemployed, Jess found work transcribing at the ABC, just to get in the building.
Jess is quick on the keys and made light work of her daily round. She worked hard, showed initiative, and most importantly, she got noticed.
When a producer left, Jess found herself slotted into her new researching role and jumped into the turmoil of foreign affairs in the Middle East – all from her desk in Sydney.
She dived head-on into the Arab spring uprising, finding factual sources and information via an alternative route, using social media and citizen journalism to get a picture of what was happening on the ground.
Jess engaged with Twitter and found what she described as “a massive room of fixers” to confirm and verify her stories. Jess used these accounts to cross-check and triangulate with other sources, and “only then did we put it on air”.
During this time she was drawn to the courage of the locals on the front line.
“The thing that really drove me over that year was to try to communicate to Australians the incredible bravery of people across the Middle East literally risking their lives just to have a piece of democracy.”
Jess collaborated with Mohammed “Mo” Nabbous, the face of citizen journalism in Lybia, before he died in the liberation struggle, and spoke of the stress and tension of working with people in these confronting scenes.
Paying the price through stress
And it took its toll, with Jess suffering from what she discovered was called “a vicarious trauma”, an empathic engagement with traumatised people and their reports of traumatic experiences. She found it particularly difficult to hang up the phone from someone living in a war zone to return to the stark reality of a news desk in the ABC offices.
She contacted the DART Center for journalism and trauma in the US, looking for answers. When quizzed if she could write something for them, Jess explained she wasn’t calling to do research for a story: “I actually need some help with it.”
“Now basically every newsroom understands reporters need help with it.”
Jess’s next role was to take foreign reporting to a whole new level when she was offered a job with the Global Mail, requiring her to pack up shop in Sydney and shoot over to Cairo. Her mum fainted in the kitchen when she told her she was moving there. Isn’t that sweet?
But Jess’ mum needn’t have worried because Jess had a ball in Cairo, meeting and collaborating with young journalists and freelancers and photographers in a huge youthful movement, everyone out there having a go. Cairo was a real hotbed of talent and always had something going down. Jess spent her days on the streets, speaking with activists and getting amongst it, dodging bullets in a fractured society with a big smile on her face.
She recommended young journalists keen to try their hand at reporting overseas to go for it, but to be selective about the destination. Jess told us she wouldn’t recommend going to Syria, however, places like Turkey and some parts of Africa are “a reasonable idea for somebody who wants to get into international reporting”.
After an incredible adventure and many more stories under her belt, Jess had a massive seizure on the plane trip home, which led to the discovery of a tumour on her brain. She had brain surgery and described it as “amazing”. I would not have described brain surgery as amazing, maybe frightening or terrifying, but anyway, this is one amazing individual.
Jess returned to Australia as a journalist at Background Briefing, which she describes as “radio’s answer to Four Corners”, and she is now working on a book about domestic violence. She had some ace advice for our journalism class. She talked about being innovative and having your niche and using a diversity of platforms to research and produce your work.
“Do it well and do it differently,” she said.
Will do. Thanks, Jess. – Jackson Barron
Photo of Jess Hill by The Newsroom’s James Mott.