How Comics Empowered Me

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid and it’s fair to say that they influenced my decision to become a journalist.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent have a lot to answer for. I might be in mid-thirties but I still have my trusty worn-out Superman sweatshirt I curl up into after spending intense days either working on investigations or sharing remarkable stories in ways that will make them interesting to a global audience. My job as a journalist at the BBC is a varied one and everywhere I go, I pop a pen and a notepad into my bag – because you just never know when a story is going to unfold in front of you. It’s a lesson I picked up at an early age thanks to roving reporter Lois Lane.

I wish I had her fashion sense but for now, I’m just pleased that she helped me find a career that I quite enjoy.

It’s not to say I didn’t have other female journalist heroes. Much like Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo from the TV series the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – I too was a little bit in awe of “determined TV news reporter” April O’Neil. She was always getting up to adventures and helping them out. Surely that’s what being a reporter was about? These were strong women and I admired them.

Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High book series, Lynda Day in the British children’s television series Press Gang; these were accessible role models whose love of journalism and telling stories and being powerful female figures were all influential as I hit my teenage years.

I moved on and started devouring newspapers and books. I loved Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing. I was lucky that I wasn’t a shy adolescent – at least when it came to being curious about the world. In everything else, I felt like I was on the fringes of whatever “normality” was. But if there was anything to do with storytelling in whatever medium then I’d put myself forward. Work as a children’s bookseller? Yes please. Help set up a youth magazine for my borough so people my age can tell our stories? Of course.

When I got older, my local paper asked me to write a column about what life was like for a girl from a working class background to study English Language and Literature at the hallowed halls of Oxford University. It was there I saw first-hand how if I was to succeed in a highly competitive environment, I needed chutzpah. I needed to take ownership of my writing and believe in my capabilities. I also soon realised I needed to learn the art of networking – something incredibly key for any journalist to be good at. It’s through our networks we find out opportunities, are able to help each other, and get our stories the exposure they deserve.

What drives me is telling a good story. I began my career in local newspapers where I would go to court, inquests, carry out death knocks, write features, columns and learn how to make people accountable to the community around them. It was the best training any journalist could have. I then worked for an independent production company specialising in human rights stories – Insight News Television – where the documentary makers instilled in me an importance of remaining passionate about the story and the difference one journalist can make to the lives of so many others just by giving them space and a platform to share their experiences.

And then I ended up at the BBC, where I’ve been for the past nine years. I’ve worked in a variety of departments, on youth programmes, investigations, the website, World Service radio, digital newsgathering, the business unit and partnership projects. I’ve won awards and worked with the best in the industry – people whom I am in awe of everyday. I am a digital storytelling specialist and I’m glad I’ve moved across departments and allowed my passion for finding ways to stories in creative ways to drive my ambitions. One day I’ll be a verificationista – debunking fake news and investigating emerging breaking news stories; the next I’ll be figuring out the best way to get people to share a story focusing on economics and making it relatable to their lives. Then again, perhaps I’ll be popping up on a Facebook Live or researching inspirational stories of innovation.

Of course it’s difficult to be a woman working in this industry; especially when you begin to realise the importance of having a degree of a work/life balance. Life and its associated challenges doesn’t stop. We’ve all got families and commitments. But journalism is a profession which is hard to fit into a normal eight hour slot. Stories emerge at any time; or you have to follow up at times convenient to the person you need to interview. It’s key to build a strong support network around you who can help you achieve your ambitions as well as make sure you don’t sacrifice everything for work. Here at the BBC, I tried to be involved with the organisation’s pioneering Global Women in News network at its founding stages. It’s an amazing support network. I’m surrounded by amazing women producers and journalists whom I learn from every day. Women who are juggling families, caring responsibilities, multiple projects at work but still produce some incredibly creative interviews and ideas because they love their jobs so much despite its demanding nature.

And of course it’s hard not to be affected by some stories that you work on. I started at the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub when the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011.  I have extensive experience working on disinformation, of working on stories of school shootings and murders; terror attacks and other traumatic reports; of seeing unspeakable acts. But that’s when the art of resilience plays a role. I took my experiences and made them into something to learn from.

I was selected for an Ochberg Fellowship focusing on trauma journalism at the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. My interest in that and wanting to be a better storyteller led to another fellowship, this time a Rotary International Peace Fellowship focusing on peace and conflict – something that underpins everything we do as journalists. I took a career break to do this professional development course because it was important for me to embark on this path and meet with non-journalists who worked in this field. If I understood why people worked in war zones; took up careers as peace activists; I felt I would be able to tell their stories better. I’d have more context. It’s important to defend press freedom but first I felt I needed to understand more about whose voices were the ones that people in positions of power want to suppress and why.

I’m back in London right now and currently am with the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit helping to demystify the world of business so that people understand how it affects their daily lives no matter where they are.  It’s a challenge, but then again, every role I’ve ever done has been.

In my career at the BBC I’ve been fortunate to work on big projects. One of which was called What Does Freedom Look Like? We asked the world to share their images of freedom. The season had a massive effect on me. Everything I do now I think about how as a journalist at the BBC, I am in a privileged position; able to give people a voice. When I worked on that project, I came up with the idea of creating a superhero especially for our season. We eventually commissioned a wordless comic which was shared across the World Service and our language services focusing on the idea of freedom. It was a success.

And me – I still read a lot of comic books and they still help me be a better journalist.

I have a dream – shh – that one day I’ll make it into a comic book. Maybe other kids, who don’t quite fit in will see my story and understand that it doesn’t matter what they look like, what they identify as, or what their background is; if they want to be storytellers too and they’ve got the determination to succeed, they can do it.

It won’t be easy but they can do it.

Dhruti Shah shares her story with the SPJ International Community as part of the women’s series for #PressFreedomMatters. She is an award-winning journalist, 2017 Rotary International Peace Fellow, 2015/2016 Ochberg Fellow and strategizes and produces the social media output for the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit. You can follow Shah on Twitter, Facebook, website and personal blog to keep up with her work.

If you or someone you know would like to share your narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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