“You know you’re holding people to account when you’re being shouted at by both sides”

Sharon discusses the latest edition of the Sunday Life and a case where UDA masked paramilitaries threatened a van driver to drive what he suspected was a bomb to a nearby Church.

Ulster University Journalism Speaker Series Review – Sharon O’Neill

Sharon O’Neill, News Editor of the Sunday Life, is a rare gem among professional journalists.

The traditional line, of course, is that journalism has changed since ‘my day’, avenues are ‘closing’ up as we pull the ladder of opportunity up behind ourselves, ‘print media is doomed’. So far, so cliché. Yet Sharon imbued students at the Coleraine campus iBlock on Wednesday, 21st of November, with a sense of proactive optimism to go out there and look for opportunities,  as she did in the mid 1990s starting out as sub-editor at the Belfast Telegraph.

Sharon urged students to invest in the news stories emerging from local government, politics and the justice system to find new perspectives and build a portfolio of work.

“We have an open courts system here, so go and sit in on a court case, sell your work to local newspapers, contact the Causeway Hospital about the recent waiting times for ambulance patients coverage, get yourself out there and start to network,” she said.

Sharon insists that it is sound ethical practice to approach the families and community groups involved in your reporting as stakeholders with agency, and to ensure that you make a good impression with families when covering intimate stories that touch on loss of life, crime or the abuse of political and social minorities.

The Sunday Life investigation into fourteen people who contracted the Coronavirus as a result of clusters on hospital wards that led to further reportage across multiple media platforms was led by an ethical code that ensured that the families of the victims were respected and consulted about the findings.

Sharon related the intimate and delicate story of the young woman who was almost kidnapped by Jeffrey Kelly in Portadown in May 2020. Working with fellow journalist and videographer Kevin Scott, Sharon probed the details of the attack in order to raise awareness about the toxic masculinity endemic on our streets, whilst ensuring the anonymity and mental health and well-being of the victim.

The bravery she showed in agreeing to come forward was reflected in Sharon’s dogmatic approach in sharing the story with the world in a way which worked the victim, as well as the newspaper.

Sharon advised students to deliver their interview content on multiple platforms to reach as many audiences as possible, with the “I’m Lucky to be Alive says Car-Boot Victim” story being delivered as a print spread, as a podcast and video. Kelly was handed a nine year sentence. 

This event was also a valuable tool for students who are pursuing alternative ways into Journalism practice.

Sharon related that after working through her 20s as a Secretary transcribing births, marriages and deaths for columns in the Irish News, she decided to study journalism and media at the University of Central Lancashire.

Approaching the industry as a flexible, hard-working freelancer in the mid 1990s, she worked as a sub-editor and later as a chief reporter at the Belfast Telegraph, working morning or evening shifts to cover breaking news. This allowed her to develop problem-solving skills within a team, quick-thinking, and specialisms in the coverage of justice, paramilitary crime and the policing arrangements that saw the RUC become the PSNI in 2000. She put this experience to good use to develop formats for UTV current affairs and investigative journalism programmes such as UTV Insight and Up Close.

When asked about her influences as a reporter, both in investigative work in print and on television, Sharon referred to Kate Adie, who covered the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 for the BBC, and fellow Northern Ireland investigative journalist Mandy McAuley with BBC’s Spotlight. 

The Journalism Speaker Series has had some high profile speakers, from David Blevins to Paul Reilly.

Each brought their own particular brand of nostalgia for current affairs of the recent past, and contextualised the way in which their coverage reflects Northern Ireland as a post-conflict society.

Sharon O’Neill brought a sense of practical realism, and an informal tone of encouragement and advice to the Speaker Series, proffering that paramilitaries are criminals there to be spoken out about, and that it was the job of her newspaper to go to doorsteps, hold people in authority accountable for lack of action, and to make a change within communities.

With Sharon, the audience were offered a no holds barred version of the investigative journalist as an individual covering stories to the best of their ability, with the available resources and the available time to hand. Sharon offered practical tips on how to build a portfolio, approach news desks as a student journalist, and gain experience.

Not only concerned with the go-getter approach, Sharon urged students to be mindful of their mental health and workload, and to manage the pressures of getting a story in on time.

This was a speaker who was invested in the hopes and burgeoning skills of those in the audience, rather than the order of her slideshow. Sharon O’Neill brought a hands-on, intimate perspective to the Speaker Series, inspiring the next generation of editors and chief reporters in her footsteps.

Sharon O’Neill, Editor of the Sunday Life, discussing career options, placement and freelance opportunities with a group of students at the conclusion of her presentation.
Author profile

Michael McConway is a student journalist who has worked with BBC NI Learning, the Antrim Guardian, County Derry Post, the Ulster Museum, the National Gallery of Ireland and Museums Council Northern Ireland. He is interested in covering politics, social history and writing reviews, whilst conducting oral histories in the community on family history, farming tradition and rural life with the group TIDAL Toome.