Journalist, CNBC Singapore, Master of Media Arts and Production (2012)
Seref Isler is a journalist and news producer from Turkey, currently based in Singapore. In 2012, he was studying his international masters degree, living large at UTS Housing with people from around the world, working at SBS, and having one of the most career-defining years of his life. After graduating, Seref moved to London to cover the globe, working for the BBC World Service for several years, getting caught up in tsunamis, earthquakes and coups, and then moved on to work with CNBC (the Asian branch of the American NBC network) in Singapore. Writing from his work-from-home-set-up, Seref shares his stories and wisdom, and why he's still hooked on his chosen career.
I love the adrenaline of racing against time: building a package made up of multimedia, personal stories and information. I am also very proud of the purpose it serves. We ensure that people get the right information and protect their freedom to be informed. It is a selfless job. In the current times, people tend to get angry with the messenger when they don’t like the facts. I’ve never really been hurt by that because in my heart I know that I’ve done my job well. But I think most importantly I’ve always loved the people I work with – for they have also shared the same ideals and qualities.
Readers' note: Below you can follow Seref's career in pictures.
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Right now, Seref’s life in Singapore's COVID lockdown means working from his living room, with visits to the CNBC studio control room where precautions like wearing masks are the norm.
Click to read about Seref in lockdown
Seref quickly adapted to lockdown.
Journalism is about adrenaline and communication with people, so when I work from home I do sometimes feel a bit cut-off. Communication via text and email just doesn’t have the same effect. When interviewing someone remotely, you can’t easily pin them down for an answer. But we’re all in this together and you just do your best.
Technical work-wise, all of the platforms are online so we can access them from home. We use software platforms like INews (a news processing system - SBS uses this). Any news channel’s video producing systems can run remotely though there’s a skeleton crew at work that puts together the more urgent material. We get out of bed, launch the software and start building stories in the platforms. Our presenters have cameras in their living rooms, and can present from there.
Seref is philosophical about what is needed in these extraordinary times.
I completely understand why it’s important to stay at home given the medical situation. I don’t think anyone is actually enjoying it, but clearly it’s what’s deemed the safest course of action for communities. I feel very safe in Singapore. My work and the country are taking the matter seriously, enforcing strict measures to limit the spread of the virus. At the same time they are conscious of urgent needs so I don’t feel like I have to stock up or anything. Yes, our social lives are curbed for a bit but the situation is serious. That’s a fact. Singapore’s health system is very good and its geography as an island makes it possible seal it off efficiently. Right now, I’m not scared. I’m cautiously optimistic.
Supremely adaptable, over the years Seref has made several major global career jumps, including the life-changing one that brought him from Turkey to UTS.
Seref at UTS
It started in his late twenties, when Seref was feeling that life was passing him by. He had the security of his radio job in Turkey, but was unsatisfied.
I was a journalist in name only. I was doing technical journalism (I had studied technical production in Canada) and was technically putting together the broadcast but not interrogating the stories or the people we were reporting about. The media landscape in Turkey is highly contentious and I felt that I wasn’t paying the dues of being a journalist. I couldn’t ask the hard hitting questions or have deep conversations with anyone I wanted.
He found himself trawling the web for a new course, anywhere in the world.
I wanted a degree that would combine the art of filming as well as storytelling. When I googled practical media arts and journalism, the first hit was UTS. And I instantly fell in love with the curriculum. It straight away spoke to me – it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I’d heard about the practical side of the courses there. It was a complete leap of faith to resign from a permanent contract, sell my car, borrow money from my parents – all to move thousands of kilometres away.
It turned out to be a life-changing move.
Coming to UTS was the best thing I did with my life. The course was excellent, my instructors were industry professionals and most importantly I studied with hands-down the loveliest friends from Australia, France, China, Philippines and beyond that I could ever wish for. They all had the same passion for the business, same multicultural openness about life; and were, and continue to be, some of my best friends. I also lived at UTS Housing which was also the best thing I could have done.
Good parties at UTS Housing?
I was super social - yes the WILD PARTIES were fantastic - but at the same time it was a big multicultural learning experience. My UTS housing friends were my confidants, my closest friends - they were the best thing for me. There were lots of Australians and lots of internationals – from Iran, Peru, China, Japan (we had a tsunami fundraising party for our Japanese friends) and so many others. I’m still friends with them and recently went to a wedding of one my Japanese friends.
Seref’s international friends also helped him to become a better journalist.
Newsrooms are time-pressured and can often be siloed places, with not much understanding about why different people from different cultures and with different political beliefs around the world do what they do.
But I’d learned so much from my international friends at UTS – I knew how to approach different people from different cultures, how to interview them, what had to be considered in understanding their ways and their points of view. I’d ask them all about their stories and their lives, and it helped me understand the way people think differently in different countries. It was so helpful and has continued to help me through my career as an international news reporter.
It's no exaggeration to say that I owe where I am now to the faith all my UTS friends placed in me.
While he was busy studying his masters degree full-time, and partying a lot at UTS Housing, and being a good friend, Seref also found time to work at SBS.
Cutting his teeth at SBS
Seref lights up when he talks about his time working at SBS.
I could film videos, talk to technical staff in technical language, talk to journalists in journalism language, interview people, WRITE the stories, RECORD the stories. It was the best combination of learning the skills at UTS and applying them at SBS.
I will always be loyal to whatever channel I work for; but I’ve also never hidden the fact that SBS will always have a very special place in my heart. The channel’s attitude at the time was a breath of fresh air in the era of clickbait and profit-driven journalism: “We will never be the most popular, so let’s be the highest quality." I really enjoyed working for a channel that prided itself in broadcasting high-quality international news for English-speaking domestic audiences.
SBS served the need for public broadcasting for audiences that were internationally-aware; those who knew Australia wasn’t alone in the world. Being part of the multicultural experience of telling stories from abroad was something I was very proud of. I worked for both the English and Turkish radio sections which provided me with mentors I hold dear to this day.
For the Turkish audience in Australia, I worked for the 1-hour-a-day radio broadcast that didn’t just inform audiences about current affairs or daily life; but also told them more about the country they were living in.
I got the chance to travel to Alice Springs to report on Indigenous Australians there, for the Turkish radio program. Stories about Indigenous Australians, their culture and the treatment they’ve received need to be told and I knew that if SBS’s Turkish program didn’t take that story on, no other Turkish-speaking local news outlet would. Where else would I have had the chance to do that story?
I loved SBS because it was about multiculturalism and it was international. It reflected the key role that Australia plays in the global community. And frankly, I doubt there’ll ever be a time in my career that comes close to the emotional value of working for SBS.
After graduating from UTS, Seref packed up his life in Sydney, bid a sad farewell to SBS, and moved to London where he landed a job with the BBC.
Going global with the BBC
I went to work for BBC World Service. This was hard, and amazing, at the same time.
I felt lonely without the friendly attitude I had gotten so used to at SBS and UTS. In terms of work, the BBC was simply a bigger channel than SBS so my responsibilities felt much heavier. I feared that coming from a smaller channel with a smaller audience, I might not be able to deliver on the expectations. But such was the education UTS provided me that I was able to deliver not just on the news but also on the technical work and interpersonal interactions that go on behind the scenes.
For the BBC I reported and produced bulletins from the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. I happened to be at a wedding in Turkey when tanks rolled up. Being Turkish and in Turkey when the borders shut, the BBC went live to me to explain what was going on there. Later when the reporting teams arrived, I helped produce the round-the-clock bulletins from Istanbul. (I had to abandon my friend’s wedding, something she didn’t forgive me for, for a year.)
I was also a bulletin producer from the Palu earthquake in Indonesia in 2018 and the Krakatoa volcano eruption.
One of his jobs at the BBC was to cover the 2016 Turkish coup d’etat - one of Seref’s most perilous professional experiences.
The Turkish coup
All stories carry varying degrees of risk. I think because of the presence of gunshots and tanks, the coverage of the coup attempt in Turkey was the riskiest. Because I had been at a wedding, I had only my phone as a broadcasting tool, no safety kit, and was in the middle of a furious situation. At night there were military and civilians fighting; and the next day police everywhere checking all of us to find anyone who had links to the coup.
I had rented a car to drive 11 hours nonstop from Antalya to Istanbul (where we would broadcast from). I would be on the phone to the newsroom when police would approach me and I’d have to quickly hang-up.
I was dealing with my own country’s emotional state as well as trying to professionally put together a coverage plan. Driving alone for 11 hours just hours after a coup attempt without sleep, while conscious of the fact that a newsroom is relying on you solely, is massive pressure.
The feelings I felt that day still haunt me to this day and leave me out of breath when I think about it. That was one of the rare times when my family and my UTS friends were very openly worried for my well-being. The fact that many journalists talk openly about PTSD is I think testament to the risks in journalism.
Warzones and disasters have also been a feature of Seref's career, and getting the story in those situations requires extraordinary improvisation, personal resources and collaboration.
Reporting from a disaster - how it works
People can be under the impression that the life of an international producer is made up of first-class plane tickets to exotic locations. Being in the field as a producer is all about lots of phone calls. Your phone rings non-stop and the only time you have some quiet is when you have to turn off the phone on the plane – something I’ve come to look forward to.
We carry massive amounts of equipment to sometimes inaccessible places, constantly trying to plan for the unknown of what the next hour will bring. When I’m in the field, I have a producer in a newsroom who’s assigned to help me. I’ve also been the newsroom producer, supporting others in the field. It’s a very tight and high-stress logistical collaboration; you’re coordinating times to throw the broadcast to the field reporter; you have to know how to access them (phone call, skype etc) wherever they are; you’re working around fatigue/hunger/lack of sleep (theirs and yours).
Time doesn’t stop – so ready or not you have to go on-air in the next bulletin. You trust your training and your team and do the best you can before your time slot arrives. You’re also trying to manage how emotionally traumatic it is for both of you.
When you are in the newsroom, you’re the field reporter’s lifeline. And when you’re in the field in a warzone or dangerous environment, you’re already in potential jeopardy while trying to simultaneously do your job. If anything goes wrong, you need your newsroom liaison on the phone immediately to coordinate a response. But at the end of the day you have to sort out the problem yourself.
I’ve been very lucky that all the producers I’ve worked with are selfless people who would gladly listen to me even if things around me are falling apart.
Stories often leave an emotional impact long after, especially in disaster situations.
Earthquakes, tsunamis and the stories that stay with you
I’ve worked on countless stories that at that moment felt like the perfect story. Each was perfect for the moment we did them: be it the breaking news coverage of the coup attempt in Turkey, interviewing Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, or the death of Muhammad Ali. But one story that gives me goosebumps to this day was one after the Palu earthquake in Indonesia. While searching for a spot to film, we ran into a military sergeant.
Sergeant Robert of the Indonesian Navy watched from his post in horror as the tsunami crashed through the navy base. Once the dust settled, he realised his wife was missing.
He searched day and night for her for two days. He gave up and started looking for her body at a nearby mosque. When he returned home, she was there. She had been found by a stranger, alive and well.
"It's like falling in love all over again" he told me.
Seref sometimes feels the sting from the conflict between his job and his life, and has had to make personal sacrifices for his career. But amidst the adrenaline-rushes, the dating challenges, and the fierce dedication to quality news delivery, there’s also the weird and wacky times that keep Seref sane.
People describe me as a "bad boy rebel journalist" because I have tattoos and party, and yet can be a perfectly serious journalist. It’s important to be able to make fun of yourself.
The personal challenges and the wacky times
This career is really hard on one’s love life. The work is 24 hours, and can be in dangerous locations that audiences want to hear from, but not be in. Journalists run towards an event wearing bulletproof vests, armed only with their cameras. In contrast, the military has full combat gear.
Partners can’t cope with the fear of what might happen to us, and unless they are also journalists they don’t understand the work and why it takes so much to produce a three minute segment on the news. It can be a very lonely life – and that probably explains why journalists often end up dating each other.
Of course I’ve also chosen to live in many countries in the world as an international producer, which places an extra level of personal challenge. I have no permanent address anywhere and each time I move, I have to make new friends, find new favourite bars, furnish apartments all over again.
Can you tell us about crying tears of chili and BBC confessions of illicit foosball?
We worked on a story about table football (aka table soccer, aka foosball). Turkish law, by mistake, had given table-football the same name as a slot machine (poker machine or 'pokie' in Aussie slang), technically making it illegal along with other gambling tools. When the law was corrected, it in effect “legalised” table-football (when it had been legal all along), I took the opportunity to appear on BBC international news in a formal suit and admit to breaking the law with my cousins when I was younger.
There was a piece in which I attempted to eat the world’s spiciest dish called the Spaghetti from Hell in Singapore. I couldn’t finish it because it was so spicy that tears running down my cheek and entering my mouth were spicy! I was hiccupping too much for filming and eventually my bosses got worried about the health implications so we stopped filming.
I listen to heavy metal music while I'm writing the news - my colleagues are always entertained by my head bobbing at work. People describe me as a "bad boy rebel journalist" because I have tattoos and party, and yet can be a perfectly serious journalist. It’s important to be able to make fun of yourself in life – the alternative is to cry. I prefer to laugh. I hope you do too.
Most definitely. Crying spicy tears would be really unpleasant.
Seref's comprehensive advice for future journalists
Don’t do it for the money or fame.
Neither are in this industry. Production can be an exhausting and thankless job.
Do it for the passion.
There’s something quite exhilarating about producing news that can leave one breathless. The satisfaction should be payment enough.
Do journalism for the people you’ll meet.
Journalists have tough lives but are some of the most intelligent and open people you’ll come across. They’re the “been there, done that” generation that are generous with their time, energy and advice.
Learn to listen.
We are storytellers. We are not the main attraction but rather the messengers.
Journalists who get into the business for the entertainment and fame don’t go very far and leave many broken hearts in behind.
Many of my colleagues have gone on to become good friends of mine because they were so willing to hear me out and vice versa.
Respect those who are sharing their stories with you.
Yes we have time pressures by editors, but our interviewees -especially those we interview after a traumatic event- are often having the absolute worst day of their lives.
ADVICE FOR STUDENTS?
People around you might doubt whether you’ll be able to pay the bills with your future job. I’m sure my parents did. Yeah the pay isn’t great, but the job is so satisfying.
Do what you passionately want to do. And production is one of those things that can’t be done without the passion.
Don’t aim to be a television star, but don’t quietly wait your time either. If you want something, ask for it. There’s nothing more infuriating than interns who are obviously good but won’t speak up for the sake of being humble. Journalism and production require you to be able to enter rooms where you might be uninvited. So the personality that’s sought is one who will be able to bluntly say what they want.
The job is based on respect. You are not born a famous superstar, respect the teams that make you what you are. Production is a team effort – it’s not a race. At the end of the day, the only race you should be in should be the one you are in with yourself.
I’ve seen real-life incidents of journalists rushing to a conclusion completely alone in the hopes of becoming famous by being the first person to break a story. Teams are there so that you can share thoughts and double-check facts and perceptions.
None of those who selfishly wanted to be the sole face of a story survived in the long-run. The story about cases of child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests was published by an entire team at The Boston Globe - not one person.
Remember that each of us are a small dot in a community, that are part of a country – one of many in the world.
As an international student realise that you might be in someone else’s country but the task you have is to learn from that multicultural experience and translate it into a multicultural understanding in your stories.
ADVICE FOR NEW GRADUATES?
It’s hard to find a job as a journalist – stick to your talents and don’t sell yourself short. If you want to work at a particular company, look at their job openings every day. Have an internet presence with the work you do. All work counts. I got my TRT job thanks to a community radio station I volunteered at when I was just 16.
Sometimes stories won’t come together. You’ll start one enthusiastically and it just won’t materialise. Such is life. Learn and move on.
Situations can change in an instant – I was working on a story about tackling fake news on the internet when such huge protests erupted spurred by Facebook posts that I had to abandon the fake news angle altogether and convert it into one about the role of social media in democracy movements.
Take care of the more important things in life. I’ve seen people get furious over misspellings on-air or guests who drop out at the last moment. So what? Surely your family is more important? There are bigger things in your life than a little technical glitch that the audience will have long forgotten about.
Invest in your hobbies. We have a draining job: it's important to invest in your well-being. I am an avid scuba diver and photographer.
And appreciate your mentors. Another mentor of mine is Mike Embley at the BBC - the nicest man I've ever met. Because of the time difference, when I was doing my degree at UTS, I used to watch his bulletins (he's the night shift presenter). And I always wondered if I'd ever get to work with him one day. Not only did I get to work with him, but I got to be his producer and a good friend.
So since I had so much respect for him, I asked him if as the final thing I do at the BBC, I could output his bulletin and he agreed. We got this photo after that 2:00 AM bulletin and few minutes before I left the building for good.
A final word
Tweet me, message me anytime you feel lost. Journalism and production are noble but hard professions. We are here to share advice – like many mentors did with me in my career.