Sara Moore: 'We can shed light on things going on in the world that people might not be aware of'
UTV's Sara Moore tells Linda Stewart that life as a journalist is a case of 'sink or swim', and recounts some of the more memorable high - and low -points of her career
Being a journalist is all about sharing people's stories with the world - but sometimes it can be difficult to remain an unemotional observer.
UTV journalist Sara Moore says one of her career highlights was covering the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, but admits she struggled to stay detached.
"I and cameraman Tommy Hassan travelled to Athens with Northern Ireland charity, Drop Inn Ministries, to cover the refugee crisis, which is still ongoing, and that story for me was very heartbreaking and very eye-opening," she says.
"I felt for us it was important that a local news station would be out there as a window on the world to show Northern Ireland what was really going on."
Sara has found herself pitched into many tragic situations throughout her career, but this was one that really struck home as she walked past hundreds of people who had escaped conflict and had no idea where they might end up.
"I struggled in Athens at some points, because of the way they were transporting people," she admits.
"At one point, I was standing at the port and there were hundreds of refugees coming off buses and being herded away - and it had a very sinister feel about it.
"It felt quite sinister and I got very emotional at one point. And it's hard not to have these debates all the time."
Sara says that after leaving school she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do with her life and it was only gradually that she realised she wanted to become a journalist.
But subconsciously, it seems, she always knew it was the job for her.
"Apparently, when I was in P7 you had to write a book about what you wanted to be, and I wrote that I wanted to be journalist in Australia," she says.
"I've never been to Australia. But clearly I knew more about what I wanted to do than I did when I actually had to make the choice!"
Sara grew up in the village of Whitehead on the Co Antrim coast, the daughter of teachers Brian and Inez Moore, who are now retired and in their 70s. Her brother Christopher (36) is married to Michelle and they both work on the HBO series Game of Thrones.
"Living in Whitehead, it was a nice small community," Sara says.
"When I was growing up I played hockey and I sailed at Whitehead yacht club. I also had a small group of friends who I played badminton with. I had a really lovely childhood, very active.
"I was good at speaking in public and it came naturally to me, but I'm not the sort of person who stood in front of a mirror and practised!
"Actually, I wanted to be a popstar. I loved Kylie and Jason. Much to my brother's disgust he had to listen to Westlife, New Kids on the Block, Boyzone and Take That. I was a typical teenage girl with posters all over the walls.
"Kian from Westlife was on UTV one day and I was gutted. No offence to the then Alliance Party leader David Ford, but I got sent out to interview him that day. Meanwhile Paul Reilly got to get a photograph with Kian out of Westlife, while I was away doing a real job!"
Sara was a pupil at Whitehead Primary School and then went to Carrickfergus Grammar, but after leaving school, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do.
"It was a nice community to grow up in with nice people, but I always wanted to get away and see the big bad world," she says.
"I did have an interest in a career in the media and I went to Glasgow University for four years to do a media and communications degree.
"Most of the friends that I met at Glasgow were all from Northern Ireland - so I went to see the big bad world and ended up staying friends with people from home.
It was a broad ranging course, covering marketing and communications with media as well. There was no work experience during the degree - it was very theory-based, although there was a bit of training in producing a short film.
"I loved university but when I came to the end of it, I found it quite a stressful time because I was at home trying to figure out what I was going to do and what I was qualified in. I found it difficult to break into the media."
Sara spent a year at home, "working here and there", including a stint as a receptionist. But things changed when she was accepted for a postgraduate degree in broadcast journalism at Glasgow.
"My friend and I packed up the car and headed back to Glasgow and did a year's intensive training - it was the best thing I ever did," Sara says.
"It gave me the grounding to go on and become a reporter. When I was doing that training, I realised that this was something I really loved.
"The best thing about the course was the training and preparation to go out and tell people's stories."
During the postgrad, Sara got experience working for a local radio station, work that included going to Rangers and Celtic press conferences to do audio grabs of the manager's comments and getting it back to the studio.
"That gave me the kind of experience of having to work to deadlines," she says.
"It was good experience getting into the community and reporting and listening to people. It's something that is a gift and that I love to do. Because I was training for a job it was something I thought I would love to do and it opened up a lot of doors for me."
Like most journalists, Sara had her share of volunteering to gain work experience as she tried to break into the media - and one of her very first interviews was with the late Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.
"At the time, you used minidiscs. Now everyone uses an iPhone. But I was a young reporter and I was sitting down happily interviewing away, thinking 'this is great'," Sara says.
"And then I got to the end of the interview and I realised I hadn't put the minidisc in the player. That is every reporter's worst nightmare and we've all done it sometime! But as gracious and lovely as he was, he didn't mind doing it all over again - he was an absolute gentleman."
Sara says she always had an interest in the darker side of the Scottish city and she chose to investigate heroin addiction when the students had to put together a short radio documentary on a chosen subject. "I dragged my friend Alison Gowdy - now Alison Shields - to the local support group in the middle of one of the worst estates in Glasgow to listen to the families who had been affected by addiction. I think it was then that I realised we have a responsibility as journalists to hear and listen to people's stories - just the impact of having a family member who is struggling with the addiction, the impact it has on families. You have to remember that people with addiction are people and their families love them. It was an eye-opening experience at a very young age.
"When I was doing that, I realised that in our job we can shed light on some things that people might not be aware are going on in the world. I realised then that I really wanted to do this as a job."
After finishing the postgrad, Sara's first job was at Citybeat Radio, now Q Radio, which she describes as very much a 'go and do' role.
"I probably got the best grounding at Citybeat, dealing with very tight deadlines and not wanting to mess up," she says.
"I distinctly remember having to abandon my car along the Stranmillis Embankment in Belfast and running to the then Citybeat studios at the roundabout - running for my life just to get audio back and thinking 'my goodness what am I doing'. You're very much just thrown into it and are reacting to stories."
After two years at Citybeat, Sara moved to Cool FM and Downtown Radio, where she was out and about much more as a senior broadcast journalist.
"Probably the most memorable story would have been the very sad tragedy of the McElhill family. I think it was just where you have the crossover of being a reporter but also as a human being realising the gravity of the story that was unfolding".
Sex offender Arthur McElhill killed himself, his partner Lorraine McGovern and their five children when he set fire to their home at Lammy Crescent in Omagh in November 2007.
"It was getting up early in the morning and heading straight to Omagh, arriving at the scene and realising what actually was happening and getting confirmation that evening that the whole family had died. I was in Omagh for the week right up to the point of covering the funerals and trying to paint a picture of what was happening."
Sara says the radio team was very small but very close knit and it was a difficult decision to make the jump to television.
"I hate change, but after two and a half years of very sad news and good news, you want to progress in your career. When you're in my position, TV does seem like the natural progression.
"I wasn't sure if it was for me, because I don't like people looking at me. I am actually quite a shy person in real life, but I do enjoy presenting and telling people's stories.
"I always remember a lecturer at university said, 'I'm not too sure whether it matters what you say, Sara - it's just how you say it'. I'm not sure I liked that one!"
An opportunity had come up for a free lance position at U105 and Sara threw her hat in the ring - from there it was a short step to UTV.
"I remember walking into a bigger newsroom with faces that I've watched throughout my lifetime on TV and thinking 'oh no, what have I done?'. Again my experience at UTV was 'go and do'," Sara says.
In her first week at UTV, Sara was supposed to be training but as news came in of the bomb attack on PSNI officer Peadar Heffron, who was seriously injured when dissident republicans planted a device under his car, she was asked to grab a camera and go.
"I realised it's sink or swim in this industry. But in radio I was used to going, so I didn't really think about it. That was my first taster of UTV," Sara says.
"I think, like anything in life, the more experience you get at it, the more naturally it comes to you. When I am doing something to camera I pretend I'm presenting to my mum and dad who are watching the news, and I try to tell the story as if I am telling it to them. The simpler you keep it, the better it is."
Sara has now been at UTV for eight years and loves being part of the team.
"It's a very small newsroom by some standards, but it doesn't take away from what we do. I work with some of my best friends and we are all for each other and we want the best for each other. They are good people," she says.
Two of her big career highlights have been covering the refugee crisis - as already described - and travelling to Paris to meet the fans celebrating Northern Ireland's football team's success at the European Championships.
"I loved it - I was in my element," Sara says. "Northern Ireland's football team had made it into the last 16. We were there to find Northern Irish fans and get a flavour of how amazing this was and reflecting how great we were doing.
"And then the next day I woke up and found that Brexit had happened and I thought 'right, I am in Paris - I'm going to be covering Brexit'.
"So we were finding our fans and reporting the fun with them, but I was also on the ground asking people in Paris what they were thinking about the decision by the UK to leave the EU and what it would mean. They were doing a live Brexit programme and they wanted us to go live from Paris."
Sara recalls racing to the Eiffel Tower in a taxi, trying to convince the taxi driver that they didn't want to stop and take photos, while all the time the newsroom were calling and asking where they were.
"It's the pressure of live TV - I don't think people realise what you are up against. Anyway, we had got to the point where we were at the Eiffel Tower and were ready to go, but I didn't have an earpiece so I could hear nothing in the studio. And then a French security guard came over and attempted to move us.
"I don't speak French but I gave him one look and I think he got the message - you can throw me out in five minutes but I am not going anywhere right now!"
Sara says she loves covering the big visits, such as the time former US President Barack Obama came to Belfast.
"It was the whole experience from seeing the presidential car and how people were really proud that he was coming to Belfast. It felt like a real moment. I would have an interest in US politics anyway and to be part of that, it meant a lot."
Sara admits she is pitchforked into nerve-wracking situations from time to time.
"When there is a storm they like to stick you in it. It's the usual reporter thing of getting soaked, getting blown away or standing in a field covered in snow. You have to be ready for every eventuality," she says.
"We did a piece on rescue dogs in the Mournes and it was very wet and very windy. You would have thought it was Everest.
"I think you are also sometimes dealing with situations where you are going into communities where you are not always welcome. If you're going to a scene where someone has been murdered, it's a very tragic situation and you have to be sensitive to what's going on, given the climate where there are threats and things happening.
"You could be going to court and well-known people are there. You have to be aware of your surroundings but you have a job to do."
Sara says she has recently bought her first house and is now living back in Whitehead.
"On my bucket list is that I am hoping to run the Belfast marathon this year. I am in a small group of running friends and we are currently training for the Larne half marathon in March. My friend and I ran the Belfast half marathon," she says.
"In the last couple of years I started going back to church and faith is a very important thing in my life to me.
"A big ambition for me would be to visit St Helena, a small island in the south Atlantic where my mum is from. She came at the age of 18 to do teacher training at Stranmillis and met my father, but I haven't been to St Helena yet. It would be a real ambition of mine to go and meet family members that I haven't met yet - that is a top priority for me.
"In 10 years' time I just want to still be happy. I don't have any major ambitions - just have a family and be happy. I have someone in my life but it's very early days yet."
Asked about what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland with that overseas connection, she said St Helena is a British colony and she doesn't regard herself as mixed race.
Sara says she isn't the kind of person who is inspired by famous figures, but has been inspired by some of the people she has met along the way who have weathered tough times.
"It's about people's stories and their journeys. You don't have to be the one of the Hillary Clintons of this world - it's the people that overcome things who would inspire me," she adds.