Advance Connect : Foreign correspondence

WATCH > Zoe Daniel, former Washington Bureau Chief for the ABC, in conversation with

READ > Transcript of the conversation is now available

Sharing insights from her life as a Foreign Correspondent, and as the ABC’s Washington DC Bureau Chief for the past four years, Zoe Daniel provided a fascinating snapshot into Trump’s America, journalism in the digital age and the impact of Australia’s local storytelling upon the social fabric.

Having recently resettled in Melbourne, Zoe wove her conversation around the need to meet people where they are – be it geographically, digitally or ideologically. In a wide-ranging conversation, featuring questions from guests across Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan and the United States, Zoe demonstrated her storytelling prowess and her ability to connect the macro trends to the everyday interests of ordinary people – whether they be in Seattle or Sydney.

The Looming Election

Zoe opened by talking about arriving as the ABC’s Bureau Chief in 2015, at a time where Trump was a “novelty” candidate and Hilary was expected to romp it home. Zoe, who toured 45 of 50 states during her posting, says the disconnect between the ordinary people she met on the road and the political pundits in DC was stark. She was of the opinion in 2016 that Trump would win and in March 2020, pre the onset of the COVID pandemic, she was of the view that Trump was comfortably walking back in to another four years in the White House.

Zoe says the Trump voters she’s met felt their votes weren’t treated with respect and there’s a lot of anger from this cohort who feel as though Democratic voters have insinuated their choice was ‘wrong’ or ‘illegitimate’.

Zoe also stresses that the way Trump’s behaviour is perceived internationally is not the same as the way he is perceived domestically. We shouldn’t underestimate either the strength of the pre-existing divide between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ or Trump’s ability to control the narrative. In her opinion, Trump’s base are still solidly behind him.

They believe he’s ticked a lot of boxes when it comes to Supreme Court Justices and jobs, so there are two big questions that will determine the election outcome: 

  • Will voters blame Trump for an uncontrollable global pandemic that has crushed the economy? And to what degree are voters who traditionally vote according to their own hip pocket prepared to delve into the White House’s management of the crisis and slate that home to him at the election? 
  • Can Biden provide a strong enough sense of hope? Enough hope to inspire the centre to swing or non-voters to vote? Or will he be viewed as a reversion to the status quo? 

Digital Disruption

When asked to comment about the impact of social media targeting and the role of companies like Facebook in 2016 election, Zoe was quick to stress that we didn’t pay the issue enough attention. As someone who was breaking the stories to Australian audiences about the alleged Russian influence in the 2016 election, she was surprised at the time that the story wasn’t garnering more interest. For her, there are two major ramifications from what has been subsequently uncovered: 

  • Social media and the internet are being used as a deliberate tool by those who want to influence in some way or control what’s going on. We need to understand these strategic choices and the way they’re impacting on information and debate. 
  • Social media companies have surmounted extraordinary power in our day-to-day lives, when it comes to what information and news we consume and we need to understand and challenge the ways their algorithms draw people to content. Zoe referenced speaking with an expert who said the problem is the virality of negative and incorrect information versus the ‘boring’ nature of the truthful content. 

Zoe suggested the government needs to work better with social media companies to correct negative and incorrect information and balance the viral nature of fake news. Expressing surprise that the government isn’t doing a COVID campaign on TikTok, she challenged all attendees to think about how we do a better job of making factual information more interesting.

Local Storytelling

Zoe discussed the power of local storytelling when asked by Melanie Brock in Japan about diversifying the narrative. She acknowledged that Australian news organisations used to cover business and entrepreneurial stories from the Asia and Pacific region, and that today these narratives get no air. When asked about the state of journalism, Zoe reflects on her early days as a regional reporter and admits she is really worried about Australia’s increasingly dominant national narrative. A polarised society, says Zoe, thrives on a void of different stories – “Who’s covering what happened at the local courthouse? On the local council? What do the local politicians say?” Zoe says, “More importantly, who’s telling the real stories from daily life?”. When we stop telling the stories at a local level, we lose our capacity to have a conversation we don’t agree with.

Zoe warns, “We become worse every day, as a society, when there is only one national news source.”

The wrap-up was prepared by Holly Ransom, Fulbright Scholar, Harvard University.

About our speaker

Zoe Daniel has returned from Washington where she was the bureau chief for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She was one of the few journalists who “saw the rise of Donald Trump coming, and that came from her dedication to reporting beyond the big cities, speaking to real people in smaller communities. Zoe has returned to Australia with her family after a four year stint as Washington Bureau Chief for ABC News. While in the United States, she travelled from Alaska to Washington and to 44 states.”

Zoe was the ABC’s South East Asia correspondent from 2009 to 2013 and provided on-the-ground coverage of stories ranging from major political events to natural disasters including the Bangkok protests, the reform process in Myanmar and the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.Between 2005 and 2006, Zoe was the ABC’s Africa correspondent. Prior to that in 2004, Zoe covered the Olympic Games in Athens. She has reported on conflict, famine, natural disasters, repression and poverty across the world in countries as diverse as Sudan, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand.

Zoe began her career in journalism as a radio producer in South Australia. She then reported on rural issues in New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria before becoming a business reporter and then a general reporter working on flagship ABC programs such as 7.30 and Lateline. Zoe is the author of Storyteller, which provides a personal insight into her life as a foreign correspondent while juggling a family.


“Great session this morning… Zoe’s insights and practical approach are always inspiring and she never disappoints.”
“It was a very insightful session by Zoe. Found it very useful indeed. “
“A great session today Maria well done”
“I found Zoe’s perspectives and insights very balanced and interesting”

“Thought Zoe was fabulous…listened to most of the conversation and thought she was fab!!”