Tsunamis, Trepidation and Tenacity

Norma Hilton:

There were 5 people in the newsroom. It was exactly 8 am. The pitch meeting ended as quickly as it started – ideas discussed vied for and eventually allocated. Sure, most of these details are insignificant. But I remember this 2018 meeting clearly because it was the first of many instances where I was the only woman and person of color in the room. 

It was in one of these newsrooms that a co-worker turned to me once and asked how he should pronounce Benjamin Netanyahu. I did not know. I found out the same way he could have – by googling it. When I worked in a TV newsroom, I covered the devastating Indonesian tsunami in 2018, earning myself the nickname, ‘tsunami girl’, or was assigned a different international story. A young man was always asked to cover sports, even though I had considerable experience covering the subject. The experience in question was an internship in the sports department of a print newspaper, where I was casually asked to go ‘cook for the newsroom’. It was immediately played off as a joke.  

I’ve heard worse stories from my friends and colleagues. But as a woman, particularly of Bangladeshi heritage, the subliminal message I received was, ‘be eternally grateful’. Be grateful you’re studying abroad; be grateful you have no obvious financial difficulties; be grateful you’ve received an English medium education so you can compete up with the natives of a primarily white country. Be grateful, above else, for even being in the room. 

Being in the room isn’t enough. Yes, I’m in the room. But I’m covering neo-natal medical malpractice in Bangladesh; #MeToo in Saudi Arabia; going to the Rohingya camps and try to understand what happens to women after the ethnic cleansing of such magnitude. And even though all these stories are interesting, complex, and newsworthy, time and time again I was asked to remove massive chunks of the history, background or facts, by being asked to ‘contextualize’ my stories for an Australian audience. And it never made sense to me. 

As of the press, we have the power to shape what stories and how stories are told. And it’s in the public’s best interest to see as many perspectives, points-of-views, and stories on the news. This is the only way to make an informed decision about what to believe in. Yet, the public is denied this for the most part. The stories primarily being told are from a very white, very male, and very Western perspective. And why wouldn’t they be? 77 % of all newsroom workers are white and 61 % are male, according to the 2012-2016 analysis by the Pew Research Centre. 

Only about 16 % of the media editors are female. And in higher education, it’s worse. During my 3 years at university, I did not have a single woman of color teaching me. I did not see myself in my faculty. I did not see myself in my workplace. And so, I couldn’t imagine myself ever being in those positions. I couldn’t see myself as a leader. I’d accepted it then. But looking back on it now, makes me realize how damaging it’s been to my psyche.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. 80 % of the students I graduated in 2019 were women. Around 69 % of us completed a Bachelor of Journalism with distinction. The pattern persists in graduate-level studies as well. For example, 75 % of the admitted M.S. class of 2020-2021 at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism is female. These are all encouraging numbers. More women are enrolled in and currently studying journalism than ever before in history. More of us will eventually work as journalists, producers, and editors. I myself want to become an editor at the New York Times. I don’t know if it will ever happen. But I know I have to try. And that’s certainly something to be hopeful about, isn’t it?

About the writer:

Norma Hilton is a journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has been published across tv, radio, print and online media in Bangladesh and Australia. 

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