When Chris Reason left school, he had no idea what job he wanted to do. While he was at university, a friend suggested he try journalism. By the end of the year, he had dropped out of uni. It was the beginning of what he describes as an “addiction” to journalism.
The two-times Walkley Award-winner and a familiar face on Seven News, Reason has covered some of the biggest stories of the past quarter-century, including the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa, last year’s Thai cave rescue and the Lindt café siege in Sydney.
He and his cameraman, Greg Parker, were the only journalists able to watch the siege unfold live, from inside Channel Seven’s Martin Place studios.
Speaking to students at Macleay College, Reason, 53, described journalism as “an extraordinary ride”.
“It gets me to the front row of every major event that has happened in our modern era.”
He also told how some of his biggest journalistic successes have entailed following his instinct, taking risks and even, sometimes, disobeying his bosses.
In 1996, for instance, while covering the Atlanta Olympics, he was told not to fly to the site of a plane crash in Long Island. Instead, he jumped in a taxi, took the last flight to Long Island and, dressed only in jeans and a T-shirt, with a Blackberry phone fast running out of battery, arrived at the crash site hours before Seven’s network rivals.
“Sometimes you’ve got to back yourself,” he said. “Sometimes you know, in the field, the situation far better than they [editors] do. You do it carefully, you do it politely and it’ll pay off.
“I like gambling with logistics – thinking, can I get this interview, can I get that scoop, if I put this off, I ignore my boss, disobey the orders I’m given? … I’ve been pretty good at that in years gone by.” But the veteran broadcaster also cautioned:
“It’s risky and you’ve got to be careful before you do it – don’t go doing it on your first week [in the job].”
Reason’s first job was at the Redland Times, in Brisbane, followed by a brief stint at Channel Nine. At the age of just 23, he then landed the job of London Bureau chief for Channel Seven, one of the youngest people ever appointed to such a role.
“I think it was a major mistake, to be honest,” he said. “I tell myself, if I ever become news director, I’d never let someone that wet behind the ears take on that role.
“It saw me in war zones with absolutely no idea and no ability.”
Fortunately, he never ran into serious trouble, and got through the dangerous jobs by learning on the run.
In Lebanon, where he reported on the war which broke out after Israel invaded in 2006, winning his first Walkley Award for his team’s coverage, he found out about a network of Australians there who were in contact with each other.
“From the time I get into a country, everybody I speak to everyone is a source, from the taxi driver that picks you up from the airport to the driver that takes you across the border,” he said.
“We tapped a rich vein of Australians … For us, when you’re telling a story of that magnitude, we like to tell it in the commercial news world through Australian eyes: what’s it like to be in a war zone for an Australian?
“Suddenly it brings that story, hopefully, home for an Australian audience, to Australian lounge rooms. It’s not that foreign, ‘Oh here’s another war going on in a far-flung country.’”
Of his unique vantage-point on the Lindt café siege, another career-defining story, Reason said: “It was a tightrope walk for the entire 30 hours we were in there.
“We knew that one wrong word would jeopardise the situation.”
Seven was instructed by police not to broadcast any live pictures, so as not to imperil the rescue operation.
Reason has also covered much lighter stories, such as the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Journalists working for commercial news networks need to be versatile, he believes.
“Does anyone have a family that just speaks about federal politics or speaks just about investigations or just about foreign war zones?” he asked. “You’re driven to cover the stories that matter the most to people, even if it’s something as light as a royal wedding.
Reason said that a brush with cancer in 1998, followed by its resurgence in 2002, dramatically changed his approach to work. “I don’t put myself at as much risk as I used to because I’ve got kids and a wife.
“It’s hard because journalism can be such a full-on, full-time profession. You take it home with you – you don’t stop,” he said, adding that it was important for journalists to take time to look after their physical and mental health. – @marynguyen_AU