A woman at the top: Sarah Whitehead

Ex Head of International News, current Head of Home News and Deputy Head of News-gathering at Sky News Sarah Whitehead, visited students at Brunel University to offer insights into the fast paced, challenging and shifting world of journalism.

Inspirational journalist Sarah Whitehead has worked her way across news, drama, radio and documentary, eventually landing herself a top role at Sky News.

Whitehead, who is head of home news and deputy head of newsgathering at Sky News, came to Brunel University last month to speak with budding journalism students about her experiences and offer them some encouraging career advice.

“To be a good journalist you need to be a self-starter, be able to admit what you don’t know, be able to make quick decisions and be confident but not cocky,” she said.

But most importantly, she added, you need to have passion. “You need to love news”.

When she was starting out in the news industry, Whitehead’s love of reporting stories secured her a place at the BBC, where she stayed for 15 years. She managed assignments for TV, radio and online, dealing with a wide range of high-profile stories. In 2010 she oversaw the coverage of the Haiti earthquake, the rescue of Chilean miners and the Pakistan floods.

With the job market remaining exceedingly tough for graduated and potential journalists, Whitehead told the students not to lose faith.

“You can do anything you want, just keep trying. I have been rejected from countless jobs. The important thing is that you know what you want and you don’t give up. This industry isn’t for the faint-hearted but if you dedicate yourself you can be successful.”

Previously responsible for Sky News’s widely acclaimed foreign news coverage, Whitehead has managed an extraordinary series of foreign news stories since joining the channel. In 2011 she simultaneously ran news operations which covered the shocking devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the “absolute maelstrom of foreign news” with the rise of The Arab Spring.

“In terms of foreign news, this was one of the most spectacular and compelling narratives we have seen for a long time.

“During the eighteen day revolution in Egypt, we were able to tell all the stories in real-time so that our listeners, readers and viewers felt the drama and intensity of what was going on. We got in with the people and the action”.

When it comes to women at the top, Whitehead is at the pinnacle. And she seems to juggle family life and her hugely successful career with ease – even finding the time to speak to students on a rainy Wednesday.

But is it hard to balance all these roles and is it as easy as she makes out? “It can be difficult to maintain a work/life balance but I make sure I dedicate time to my son”.

And she added, “you should never be afraid to ask your boss for something to improve your personal balance”.

“You will be a better employee if you feel able to manage all aspects of your life. It’s about having the confidence to speak out – an attribute essential in a journalist.”

When asked about the changing world of journalism – as we shift increasingly towards a digital era – she said, “I think we have reached a tipping point. At least 20 per cent of our audience comes to us through digital platforms, through tablets, phones or the web.

“Our TV audience is steady but we are all consuming news in different ways and it’s important you stay on top of the changes. At Sky we are constantly adapting the way we work to keep up to speed with the digital age. Our app is exceedingly popular and we are always updating it to satisfy demand.”

Yet the question begs to be asked, with news undergoing a shift in terms of supply and demand, is there a glass ceiling in terms of what a new journalist can achieve?

“Glass ceilings are only there in your own mind”, said Whitehead. “You need to smash through them. Work hard, be good, and know you can have it all.

“People will always want to read, listen to or watch news from reporters who they trust to get it right. If this is the career for you, focus and go for it.”

And her last piece of advice, “Don’t take no for an answer, believe in yourself, know the rules and know you are right”.

(This article was published on November 6th on journalism.co.uk)

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