Last month, Ginella Massa made history becoming Canada’s first hijab-wearing television news correspondent reporting for CityNews Toronto. Ginella has also worked for CTV News, Rogers TV and NewsTalk 1010. She frequently writes about her personal journey in broadcast media, as well as issues affecting Muslims in North America. Ginella took time off her busy schedule to talk about her career experience, the feedback to her appointment and her views on achieving a more inclusive media.
How did you got into journalism?
I always loved talking to people and telling stories. Growing up, I knew I wanted to do something in broadcasting, but I thought I might go into radio because my hijab wouldn’t matter then. It was my mother who encouraged me to dream bigger – she always said I belonged on TV, and just because no one had done it before didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. I studied Communications and Sociology at York University in Toronto, and went on to do a two-year diploma in Broadcast Journalism at Seneca College.
While I was at Seneca, I got an internship at one of the major local news stations in Toronto. I eventually landed my first job there, and worked in a number of behind-the-scenes positions before I became a reporter last year.
What kind of feedback did you get from viewers?
I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction I’ve received. My first reporting job was in a smaller city about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. I was prepared for ignorance and negativity, considering the city is smaller and less diverse than my hometown. But in a year of working as a reporter, I never received one negative comment – not even on social media where so easy to spew hate without consequence. So many people (both Muslims and non-Muslim) would constantly come up to me while I was out working and tell me how much they enjoyed my reporting and seeing me on their nightly newscast.
How important is it to have visible Muslims on our screens?
I think the media industry as a whole is severely lacking in diversity – not just of Muslims, but of people of colour in general. I’ve worked in a number of different newsrooms in one of the most diverse cities in the world, and it’s shocking how little diversity there is. But I think that’s slowly changing because managers are realising the value in having diverse voices and opinions (be it diversity in gender, age, class, race, religion, etc). I think it’s really important for newsrooms to be reflective of the society they are in.
Do you think you have inspired other hijab wearing Muslim women to take up presenting?
I certainly hope so. It can be really difficult growing up and never seeing anyone who looks like you on TV. I hope I can change that, and show women in hijab can be and do whatever they aspire to.
Has your hijab ever been an obstacle in your career?
We have pretty strict non-discrimination laws in Canada, so if my hijab has ever been a reason for not getting hired, it’s never been said to my face. Still, I’d heard from colleagues and people in the industry that it would be more difficult to get on air, simply because I would be the first, and it would be a risk for the station hiring me. I had one colleague tell me it would never happen because it was just “too distracting”. But that only made me want to work harder.
Much of the coverage on your appointment has focused on your hijab; do you fear being defined by your hijab rather than your journalistic skills?
Definitely. I want to be taken seriously as a journalist and judged on my ability to do my job well. That’s why I always feel the need to work twice as hard. I don’t ever want people to think I got my job because I needed to fill some kind of quota. At the same time, we can’t be colour-blind and need to recognize the challenges and experiences that many minorities face. I think the discussion around my hijab should around be the fact that a piece of cloth shouldn’t determine whether I’m a great reporter or not.
You’ve spoken of the Muslim community’s reluctance to interact with the media – why do you think that is?
There is a lot of talk about bias in the media, and there is a level of distrust I think mainly because the average person doesn’t understand how news works and what media outlets are looking for when telling a story. Bias comes back to the issue of diversity – if the news is only ever disseminated by one hegemonic group of people, it’s only ever going to be seen through that lens. At the same time, if Muslims don’t engage with the media, then the media will continue to create their own narratives about us.
As a community we are starting to realise that discussions about Islam are dominating the headlines, and that we are only doing ourselves a disservice by staying silent and letting other people tell our stories. If we want to have positive images of Muslims and Islam, we need to be prepared to put ourselves out there and take part in those conversations.
How do you rate Canada’s media inclusiveness compared to other Western media?
I can only compare it to the US because I’m not exposed to much other media outside of North America. I think we are doing a better job than our neighbours to the south. I know of one other hijabi reporter recently hired in Saskatchewan, so that makes two in Canada. Years ago, a Canadian network produced a comedy show about Muslims called Little Mosque on the Prairie, which ran for 6 seasons.
In the US, TLC’s reality show All-American Muslims was cancelled after just one season because of backlash. I have heard stories from Muslim women in the US who have told me just how difficult it has been for them to get on-air – many have been told flat out by producers and news directors that they would never be hired as reporters because of their hijab. There is a lot of anti-Muslim sentiments in the US right now, but maybe that’s even more reason to put hijabi women TV – it can be a very powerful medium.
Do you believe in ‘Positive Discrimination’ to help increase the number of minorities in the media?
I don’t believe in tokenism, but I believe in creating opportunity. For me to get hired, someone had to take a chance. Sometimes ‘Positive Discrimination’, as you’ve called it, simply forces a company to give someone a chance they otherwise would have overlooked. I don’t think that means lowering the standard, I think it means levelling the playing field.
What advice would you give any budding Muslim journalists?
The same advice I would give any journalist: you have to love it, and you have to be a little bit insane. It’s not a glamorous career. Most often the hours are terrible, the pay isn’t great, and full-time positions are hard to come by. Work hard, take risks, and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.
Interview by Elham Asaad Buaras