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Filling in the blanks: Being a female minority journalist

During my freshman year at West Forsyth High School, we newbies sat with our guidance counselors and wrote up a plan of all the classes we were expected to take until we graduated — and even took a peek beyond. On the right side, in a column under “beyond high school,” my counselor wrote beneath post-secondary goal: UNC-CH. Under possible careers, I wrote two options: lawyer, journalist. I still have the carbon copy of this plan (no, I’m not a hoarder), showing the faint date of Feb. 17, 2006 below my name.

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My high school plan.

Almost 10 years later, I received a letter dated Feb. 9, 2015 congratulating me on my acceptance as a master’s candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism.

I suppose on the surface, it may just seem like I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. But now that I am that thing: the journalist — I’ve done some grappling with what that means for me as an American, as a woman, and as a minority, both ethnically and religiously.

Learning the news

Looking back, the news was a part of my life early on. I have memories of regularly tuning into ABC’s World News Tonight alongside my parents, and no matter how hard the news was, I guess my mom and dad were more comfortable with me hearing it from someone like Peter Jennings. To this day, I have all sorts of emotions when I hear a recap with Peter’s voice, and I get hurt that a lot of people my age (27) may have no clue who he is. Jennings passed away from lung cancer when I was 14, the same age I was when I wrote that I hoped to be a journalist one day in my freshman year of high school.

When I think of Jennings, I think of reporting with the perfect balance of sharp accuracy and emotional connection — to both his subjects and the audience. Jennings told the news in a way that simultaneously made you trust him and made you feel something: I was there, this is important because someone’s life is affected by this, and you should care.

I could think of doing nothing more significant than telling relevant stories that made people know more and, in turn, care more about one another.

At the time, I didn’t know that the people telling those stories more often than not looked just like Jennings — white and male. That’s because there was another role model in journalism who was half Persian, just like me, with her classically Iranian last name filling the lower third: Christiane Amanpour. I’d watch her go all over the world and, lacking all the pompousness of her British accent, simply tell the news like it was.

By the ninth grade, I knew I might want to be a journalist because of listening to people like Jennings and Amanpour. Because I had respect for them, for what they did, and for how they did it — and because one of them was a woman who shared the same parent country as my mother. It’s one of the many reasons why representation in this field matters.

Diversity in the newsroom

When I entered journalism school, the gender dynamics might not be what you’d think. My cohort of about 25 students was overwhelmingly female; I can only remember three male students in my year. This higher number of women in j-school is a nationwide trend, but as Poynter reports, “women comprise more than two-thirds of graduates with degrees in journalism or mass communications, and yet the media industry is just one-third women, a number that only decreases for women of color.”

My classmate Tatiana Quiroga completed her master’s thesis project on women in journalism and found, like the Poynter report, that sticking it out in the industry can be harder for women than men for several reasons, including having children and balancing family (which is difficult to manage in the odd hours of the world of 24-hour news), lack of female representation in higher levels, and low opportunities for promotions and better pay.

There are also far fewer female and minority accolades. A report titled “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017″ stated that “among the last century’s winners of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, 16 percent were women journalists and 16 percent were journalists of color.” That leaves a whopping 84 percent of the awards going to men and white journalists. Poynter also added that women “run three of the top 25 newspaper titles in the U.S. and only one of the top 25 titles in the world.”

Still, the American Society of News Editors saw some slight increases in minorities and women working in newsrooms in their 2018 survey:

“In 2018, people of color comprised 22.6 percent of employees reported by all newsrooms in our survey, compared to 16.5 percent in 2017. Among daily newspapers, about 22.2 percent of employees were racial minorities (compared to 16.3 percent in 2017), and 25.6 percent of employees at online-only news websites were minorities (compared to 24.3 percent in 2017).

Women made up more than a third of newsroom employees overall (41.7 percent in 2018 compared to 39.1 percent in 2017). Women comprised 41.2 percent of daily newspaper employees in this year’s survey (compared to 38.9 percent in 2017) and 47.8 percent of online-only news organization employees, holding steady from 2017.

…Of all newsroom managers, 19 percent were minorities (compared to 13.4 percent in 2017), and 41.8 percent were women (compared to 38.9 percent in 2017).”

Diversity in mentorship

Beyond the issue of those matriculating into newsrooms, there is the issue of who is teaching the practice. As a journalism student, both at UNC-Chapel Hill and at Wake Forest University (where I was a journalism minor), I can’t recall having a journalism teacher of color. According to Sally Lehrman of the Society of Professional Journalists, “For the past two decades, less than one out of every 12 full professors in journalism and mass communication was someone of color. Journalism and mass communication programs include a smaller proportion of faculty of color than the overall makeup of most four-year colleges nationwide.”

My mentors in journalism are also overwhelmingly white and male (though lovely and extremely talented): Ryan Thornburg, Ferrel Guillory, Tom Linden, Justin Catanoso — alongside the female professor, journalist, and all-around rockstar, Phoebe Zerwick (but I’m not picking favorites here).

This has left me after graduate school and in the world of work to find my own, albeit complicated, voice and to seek out projects that share voices of people like me: “Middle Eastern” (because that’s what half-Algerian and half-Iranian falls under, apparently), Muslim (my father is Sunni and my mother is Shia), and first-generation American.

But I’m hopeful because I see more and more young female journalists of backgrounds similar to mine bringing their whole selves to large news platforms. Palestinian-American journalist Dena Takruri is the face of AJ+’s Direct From and Shereen Marisol Meraji is the half-Persian co-host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. A few years ago at a lecture at Wake Forest, I had the chance to hear Rupa Shenoy discuss her Public Radio International podcast, “Otherhood,” and talk to her about it over dinner with her mom, who lives in Apex.

The structure of Otherhood and Code Switch inspired a podcast project I’m in the middle of working on titled “Me and My Muslim Friends,” which is produced by my colleague Liz Schlemmer, a fellow j-school alum and reporter at WUNC, the local NPR-affiliate. Our most recent episodes focused on topics like Latina converts (one guest Mexican, the other Peruvian) and the black Muslim experience of racism — because when you’re reporting from within a community, the magic that happens is simple: nuance.

While Muslim journalists are reportedly less rare in newsrooms, a Washington Post article said they “account for a sliver of the mainstream American media” and real numbers aren’t known because faith is generally not a screening question when it comes to employment due to anti-discrimination policies.

That’s why when my master’s adviser, Dr. Tom Linden, forwarded me the opportunity to apply to the Muslim Women and the Media Training Institute, I jumped on it. The Institute brings together “leading experts on women and Islamic cultures and leading journalists and faculty from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, to engage participants in the diverse and global histories and cultures of women and Islamic cultures … to foster accurate reporting, representation, and public discourses related to Islamic cultures and to Muslim women in a variety of media outlets and platforms.” My first seminar with the Institute will be in Chicago in March and again later this year in New Orleans.

In the meantime, my team at EdNC has given me the platform to share what I learn at the Institute as well as my experiences as a Muslim journalist more broadly in the form of an upcoming column, “Off-white & Olive.”

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The header for the upcoming Off-white & Olive column. Reagan Cline for EducationNC

Truth in color

Why do opportunities like this for someone like me matter?

Gone are the days of print’s black and white. It takes a really good journalist to tell the truth in color: to dive into the depths in search of unheard and untold stories and to share the voices of people who look and sound different than they do — accurately. It also takes a really good journalist to bridge communities and make our vastly different life experiences make sense to one another.

I can think of no better people to do the storytelling we need right now than minorities who have had to explain who they are and where they are from more than anyone should have to and who have navigated the ins and outs of their identities their entire lives — those who can switch languages or vernacular in the middle of sentences, who have experienced other countries through their own families rather than as tourists, and who know exactly where to find the “other voices” because it’s the only honest voice they’ve ever had.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.