At 10 to six Chris O’Keefe’s phone rang. The TV reporter had just filed his story for Nine News’s 6pm bulletin so he took the call. Then everything changed.

“The caller told me of a tragic situation at Bankstown Hospital,” said Chris.

“Nitrous oxide had mistakenly been given to infants instead of oxygen, leaving one dead and another brain damaged. It was unfathomable,” he said.

Chris confirmed the details and delivered a live cross about the breaking story at the end of the TV news bulletin. Then at 10pm he met the parents of the children at Bankstown for what he describes as a “harrowing interview”. But it was an important story to tell.

Chris says part of his role is giving a voice to people who might otherwise not be heard. “It’s beyond a privilege, it’s a responsibility,” he said.

Chris had always wanted to be a journalist. As a schoolboy undertaking work experience at Fox Sports he met renowned journalists Peter FitzSimons and the late Mike Gibson, both of whom suggested he focus on news rather than sport. It turned out to be sage advice.

Chris was recently named the 2017 Coca-Cola Journalist of the Year at the 6th NRMA Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

The $25,000 award is the richest prize in Australian news media, and Chris is the first commercial television journalist to win it.

Besides the Bankstown Hospital tragedy, judges acknowledged his rich body of work that includes stories about secret discussions in the NSW Parliament to reverse the ban on greyhound racing along with another exclusive, revealing Cabinet had agreed to privatise inner-west bus services, putting hundreds of jobs at risk.

“This is the way people get an unfiltered view of the world,” Chris said.

“In an era of social media and ‘fake news’, branded and trusted news services and their journalists perform a critical role in informing the public.

“We give people a voice when they’ve been hard done by and feel helpless against corporations and the bureaucracy,” he said.

Chris says the corporate support and recognition from organisations such as Coca-Cola is invaluable. The company’s $20,000 donation to the Kennedy Foundation enables the foundation to assist news media professionals facing hardship.

“It truly recognises the important work journalists perform in seeking out the truth,” said Chris.

Chris also won the Harry Potter Award for Outstanding Television News Reporting, Scoop of the Year and Outstanding Political Journalism.

Jack Morphet of Wagga’s Daily Advertiser took home the Coca-Cola (Powerade) Kennedy Award for Young Journalist of the Year and was awarded $5000.

Throughout Chris’s career, starting with that schoolboy stint at Fox Sports, a spell at the St George & Sutherland Shire Leader, Channel 10’s overnight news desk and now as state political reporter for Nine News, he has always strived to “keep being inquisitive”.

His advice to aspiring young journalists? “Put yourself out there and have a go. Even if you feel uncomfortable just go and do it,” he said. The truth is more important than comfort.

While grateful for the Kennedy Award and prize, Chris said he would “give every penny back if it would prevent what happened at Bankstown Hospital”.