Mentors Teach You What Journalism Schools Don’t Teach

Journalism has come a long way, from the age of print to the digital. As the industry evolves, I have realized that we need to change our collective mindset.

It is time to embrace our individuality as more women break into the industry and the industry needs to find a way to respond to it.

When I was working in Pakistan, I had to fight many battles. I was a single Pakistani girl working in the media industry, living on my own in the city; something not many women can do in that culture. Simply to exist in that environment where women are discouraged to step out of the house and work raises eyebrows. If you work in the media, like I did, meant the barriers multiplied both from society and from your workplace. In that environment, you either listen or leave. I did none of it and tried to overcome them instead. I wanted to open the doors that were closed shut on me, and women who came after me.

As I started looking for a job, I recall, my first interview was for a well-respected mainstream news channel, the producer suggested if I wanted the job I should take off my Hijab, which I wore back then. He said I needed to “show off my features more” in order to present the news. I refused, stating that it was my decision to make and not his. Needless to say, I never got a callback but that is how my journey started.

Eventually, I found a job of my liking at another news channel but it wasn’t long before I realized that I could never have my way. My immediate boss, department head, would always take credit for all my ideas. I was expected to follow a certain pattern, always the same things to be done over in a loop, looking over and reviewing work of other colleagues, sub-menial tasks, updating the web, social media, even though I was hired as a writer. A small mistake would lead to an argumentative homily about how impactful my mistake was, even though the project I was responsible to run, was in fact, my idea. “Show me that you can do it,” my boss would tease me.

People who were hired after me got paid more than I did because they were men. Even when many of them worked under my supervision and had to work on my ideas.

The constant criticism and bantering never gave me an opportunity to learn and grow. The lack of acknowledgment of my contributions, in fact, played terribly for the company. While they were busy judging me for my age and scrutinizing my ideas, they often forgot to recognize the ones they could actually benefit from. So the loss was not mine alone. This demeaning treatment left a lasting impact on me. It took me six months to recover from the feeling of worthlessness.

Switching to a progressive newspaper was like a breath of fresh air. I was finally given chances to explore ideas, talk to people, understand the world and develop my style. This too didn’t come without hurdles. I had to prove myself, I had to prove that: Being a woman should not mean my beat should only be restricted to culture or lifestyle. It is important to understand that women journalists, opportunities are always undersized, and that needs to change. When women are not given them beat that would put them at risk, it is discrimination. ‘Risk’ a subjective notion; I wasn’t asked if I found the story risky or not, rather told that I shouldn’t be doing it for my own good. The same attitude followed for stories which required travel, adventure or anything out of the box. As long as my coverage was relevant to the “women beat” – usually the lifestyle section, women rights issue coverage, culture — they were fine.

I was always told I have a long way to go and learn a lot; which was true, journalism is a process of never-ending learning, but that process requires mentorship, and guidance, not rigid criticism and abandonment. Imagine the time it may take to overcome the trauma of discrimination; the weight of constant rejection, the taunts that undermine your work. Now imagine doing that while being a woman in a conservative society. That’s a lot to take. And it takes time to take it all in. So I took my time.

Publications that still run on a hierarchical system, have little space for improvisation and excelling. Such newsrooms are restricted because you always have to go by the book. If anything goes wrong you call the editor and ask for an exact solution. This kind of manager-subordinate relationship it needs to be buried. We need to embrace an ecosystem where fresh ideas of young journalists and expertise of the old and experienced can combine and thrive. A system that nurtures independent journalists and embraces the diversity that women journalists bring.

With the right guidance and trust, the journalistic process can be a fruitful one and the right guidance is exactly what lacks in the journalistic market, at least for women.

With a mentor, the capacity for self-construction increases drastically. I didn’t know how important a mentor is until I got one. Mentors teach you what journalism schools don’t teach. The courses don’t teach you how to deal with a situation, how to contact sources and how to get rid of the desk job you don’t want.

I must regard my first mentor, Luavut Zahid who said “do not let anyone tell you, you can’t do a story. Just go and get it done.”

I was delighted when I first read about The Coalition of Women in Journalism, my first thought was, finally! I was not the only one who considered that mentorship was a needed.

I applied for an internship in the summer and was delighted when I got it. I was thrilled to move to New York to help with some amazing research that the Coalition has been working on. This experience thought be incredible, both groomed me in a technical capacity but also shattered so many misconceptions I have had about “women in the West”

Before coming to New York I used to think that women in the west have it easy and maybe now I will have it easy too. My ideas were shattered as I uncovered more and more about the women in the west when I met these women in the west through the program and discussed my ideas with them. Newsflash, women in the West don’t have it easy either. That shatters me, because if the developed world doesn’t have it then who does. I learned heartbreakingly, the dilemmas of solid and talented women who were being undermined by their male counterparts. I realized that actually gender discrimination is a global epidemic, and not restricted to our shanty backward world.

In time, it occurred to me how important it was the work that I did with the Coalition for Women in Journalism, assisting a diverse group of women from all backgrounds and colors who work everyday strengthen this ecosystem of support. These wonderful journalists who work with the Coalition as mentors are mostly freelance journalists as mentors from so many places, who sacrifice their time to help a colleague. How beautiful is that? It is a miracle if you really think about it. It soothes all the pain I have carried on my – reasonably young – back. The pain and trauma I gathered along my early career that taught me all the wrong things by the men who mistreated me and women who did not stand by my side. Ladies at the Coalition for Women in Journalism give me confidence that I will have people looking out for me as I stride forward.

On the internships, I learned so much about myself. Working closely with the founder Kiran Nazish, I learned a tremendous number of new skills — I can now take phone interviews, translate flummox jargon from long research papers into sensible language, send emails and bite my Halal sandwich all at once. I learned for the first time that I was the master of my dreams, that no goals are beyond my limits, that while there are rocks on the way, those rocks can be taken out. Of course, you better build some muscle for that and the Coalition for Women in Journalism allows us to do that. Most of all, I learned that women will be equal when not some, but all women are stronger. And that it takes courage to acknowledge that.

Annam Lodhi is a journalist based in the UAE. She has worked in television and print in Pakistan. Annam was also the first inaugural intern at the Coalition for Women in Journalism. Given her commitment, she later joined the Coalition as an assistant, editorial researcher. You can follow her work on Twitter.

The Coalition for Women in Journalism is the first global support network for women journalists of all backgrounds. We work in several countries, and offer help to journalists in multiple languages. The network of individuals and organizations bring together the experience and mentorship necessary to help women navigate the industry. You can visit the website, womeninjournalism.org to learn more.

If you want to learn more about how you can be involved with the International Community, you can join SPJ International on Facebook. If you are a journalist that would like to connect with other members of the the SPJ International Community, join here.

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