The ABC's North America correspondent, Jane Cowan, has been working in the media for less than a decade. But in that time, she's built up a stellar reputation as a journalist and has collected a number of prestigious awards.
Cowan fell into journalism almost by accident. After completing a degree in social work and social policy and a Bachelor of Arts (Criminology), she decided to give journalism a go. “It wasn’t like ever since I was five years old I wanted to be a journalist. I came to it by accident and once I’d taken to it I realised it was the only thing that could keep me interested because of the fact you are doing something different everyday,” Cowan says.
“I enrolled in postgraduate journalism, and after a month or so I got work experience at the ABC,” Cowan recalls.
Her work experience was at ABC Brisbane’s local breakfast radio program. It soon led to part-time producing work and ultimately a full-time job offer. She has been working at the ABC ever since.
In 2001, Cowan took on an online producer/field reporter job in light entertainment on the Gold Coast, which led to a role in radio news in Orange covering an area two thirds the size of New South Wales. The key to keeping track of such a large region, she says, was developing good contacts with people who lived in the area. After a short time in Orange, Cowan then moved to Darwin to accept a bi-media role reporting for television and radio.
Throughout her career she has worked across television, radio and online journalism. “That’s the beautiful thing about the ABC - you get to do a whole range of styles of reporting,” Cowan says.
When asked what her favourite medium is, Cowan cannot decide. “It’s hard to choose because it depends on the story,” she laughs. “I like not having to choose and getting to do different elements of the one story. You might file the immediate story for a radio news bulletin, and then at the end of the day you file for the seven o’clock TV news. Then with online you can reflect on over perhaps a week’s worth of events and try and make some sense of it.”
The biggest story of Cowan’s career so far - which has combined all three mediums - came in February 2009 when the Black Saturday fires engulfed Kinglake and Marysville. She was the first TV reporter to arrive on the scene in Marysville.
“We flew in the ABC chopper and landed on the oval,” Cowan recalls, “That was at a time when the official word was that everyone was fine. We came over the hill in the chopper and saw that the entire town was gone. We spoke to about 30 people who had spent the night on the oval. It was unforgettable.
“It’s not something you expect to see in your own country, that kind of destruction. It’s not something that you are really prepared to see in places that you have spent time yourself. Marysville is not far from where my parents live, so it was all close to home.”
Cowan won a Melbourne Press Club Quill Award for Best Radio News Report for a story she filed from the ABC news chopper later that day, describing the scenes of destruction in Kinglake and Marysville. Her sensitive coverage of the fires also earned her a Media Award from the Australasian Society of Traumatic Stress Studies.
Listen to Jane's Quill Award winning story:
Covering the Black Saturday fires and their aftermath has been an ongoing assignment for Cowan. “It’s been a unique opportunity. It’s rare in journalism that you stay with the same story for so long. It’s allowed me to report at a deeper level,” Cowan says. She recently reported on the Bushfires Royal Commission into the fires, winning four awards at the Victorian Law Foundation’s Legal Reporting Awards - including Reporter of the Year on legal issues and Best Radio, Television and Online stories - for her coverage.
However, she says the most valuable feedback she has received has come from people who were affected by the fires. “It’s definitely the thing that has meant the most to me. To know that in their view you’re doing something right. It’s been eighteen months of the same story unfolding and having that feedback from the community really keeps you going.
“I’ve never felt more connected to the community than through this story, not only have people been speaking to you at the worst moment of their lives, allowing you to tell their stories but then they have reached out to you afterwards and given you this feedback about the way you have been covering it. ” she says.
In late 2010, Cowan was appointed North America correspondent for the ABC. It's a great achievement, particularly for someone who never intended to get into journalism. Now, she can't see herself pursuing any other career. “I expected to have to work for a whole career before joining the ABC, so I guess I was lucky to come to the ABC for my first reporting job.”
“So I won’t be going anywhere,” Cowan laughs, “They’ll have to drag me out of the building.”