Latika Bourke, International Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
Latika Bourke is an International Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She was previously the National Political Reporter based in the Press Gallery in Canberra before relocating to London where she is currently covering British and Australian politics. Latika has also worked at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Radio 2UE and 2BS Radio in Bathurst. In 2015, she published her own memoir, From India with Love. You can Tweet her at @latikambourke
Have you always been a journalist? What attracted you to journalism?
Yes. I always knew I wanted to be a journalist, it was never a question, only deep certainty within me that that was who I was and would grow up and professionally be.
I grew up in Bathurst and was familiar with the concept of ‘Mitchell mafia’ dominating the Australian media scene, courtesy of the alumni at Charles Sturt University, from a very young age. One year when I was perhaps nine or ten years old, I remember carrying the newspapers down our long driveway for recycling collection and on the front page of The Western Advocate, our local paper, was a story on a girl studying Communications – Broadcast Journalism at CSU. I distinctly remember saying to myself – ‘that’s the course I’ll be doing when I grow up, ‘that is the same course I began in 2003 at CSU when I returned home from a year working and living in the UK after school.
It’s difficult to say what attracts me to journalism because it is like asking – what do you like about breathing? This may sound corny or even an exaggeration but for me journalism has always been a calling. I just knew that that’s who I was and that was what I would be professionally and I knew it was a lifestyle more than a job, involving an obsessive dedication to your work, reading, constantly learning and cultivating sources.
None of it is a chore and I wake up every morning excited to start work and only displeased with myself that I haven’t managed to achieve half as much as I would have liked. That constant disappointment aside, the things I get up and look forward to are: learning new things from people 100 times smarter than me every day which is intellectually stimulating, the access to very big people often doing some of the biggest things in life and also the reward of speaking to ordinary people whose stories are often overlooked – it’s an incredible privilege to gain someone’s trust in these circumstances and a big responsibility to tell their stories and do them justice.
Generally, people and the things they do and are capable of doing are utterly fascinating and anytime I can understand them and successfully convey that is a fulfilling day.
What is the most memorable story you’ve reported on?
Anytime you’re sent overseas to cover a story is pretty memorable; being on the road in a different country, particularly a non-English speaking one heightens the experience, working with fixers is both exciting and challenging and trying to work within the team of travelling correspondents while also trying to scoop them is a delicate balance to strike.
One story that encapsulated all of this was in 2016 when the 60 Minutes crew were arrested and detained in Lebanon for their role in arranging a child-snatch operation in the middle of a Hezbollah-controlled district of Beirut, on behalf of Australian mother Sally Faulkner.
There were huge personalities involved, local and religious politics to try and navigate, a sizeable media contingent to compete with and an absolute cracker of a story that was being read in huge numbers at home.
There were no heroes, everyone was a villain and it was one of those stories were everyone at home had strong opinions on the botched operation, the motives and the outcome, so the interest and engagement were both really high.
Added to that was the competitive camaraderie of being abroad with your fellow Aussie journos who you are trying to outscoop by day but having a drink and debrief with at night.
Are stories easy or hard to find for your area of journalism, and why?
I have a varied round being based in London and working on wide range of stories. Personally speaking, being a foreign journalist, even in an English speaking country, is very challenging personally and professionally.
You are basically starting from scratch in trying to build a network, profile and struggling even harder than local media to obtain confidence from people who have no investment in you as a journalist nor need to talk to your readers.
You need to be a very resilient person to work abroad because you are predominantly working alone and at times depending on your own editorial judgement. In the end, all good stories come from good sources so the more work you do on creating those the ‘easier’ you will obtain stories, however I wouldn’t describe getting good stories as ‘easy’ by any stretch, you always feel like you’re badgering someone and trying to convince someone to go on record.
How do you gather research for your stories?
The internet obviously. I keep an extensive copy of press releases and reports and correspondence in topic-folders in my email which I’ve had my entire professional life – now nearly two decades – so that helps if I’m trying to assess a policy’s development.
Academic and think tank papers are very useful as are books which I read avidly and highlight with post-it notes and references for future reference.
However the most effective way of researching for me is to just talking to people – finding experts or sources with deep knowledge and getting them to verbally explain things as well as point you to other articles for reading.
For a press release to stand out, what should it contain?
TEXT NOT ATTACHMENTS. I can’t stress this enough. I have three email accounts and around 300k unread emails. The likelihood of journalists having the time to open every email and then a PDF as well is virtually nil, especially if on the road and reading emails while commuting or in a spare few minutes between pressers and so on.
Don’t use jargon or too many product names that are meaningless to regular people, if my eyes glaze over there’s no chance my readers will understand it and it gets binned straight away.
Bullet points with key facts work well, particularly in times or crisis or emergency.
Be brief, you don’t need to overthink it or overstretch the puns or connections – just get to the point, if the facts are worthy they will stand on their own two feet. If a journalist needs more information they will ask – on that, ALWAYS include a mobile number for the media contact as that’s mostly what I’m looking for if I’m reading a press release – it would do you no harm to whack the contacts at the top instead of the bottom.
If making a personal pitch be clear in your opening sentence that this is a potentially exclusive story. Try to get the journalist’s name right (you wouldn’t believe how many people write to you calling you every name but your own) and say you are approaching them with an idea for a story and that they are your first and only choice for now.
I will always try and respond to personalised pitches, whether its yes or no. Also, PR professionals should never be afraid to contact a journalist and refer to a story they have written that is relevant to their client; I am most inclined to read these emails out of all the press releases I receive – I have developed great contacts who have approached me using this method and I really appreciate it, particularly if its a topic I have an ongoing interest in and cover long-term.
This is particularly good for private sector people who often hold a wealth of knowledge and can help inform future stories going forward but don’t have a lot of day-to-day contact with the media and aren’t sure how to deal with it; this type of PR is PR at its best.