I was only a few weeks into my second newspaper production class at Southwestern College when I first wanted to quit journalism.
As the sole Black woman in the class, the professor deemed me “immature” and left me off the editorial board because I sat on the couch in class, something I learned from a peer after the semester ended. Between being gaslit, made to feel like my ideas were unworthy because my voice did not align with my professor’s, and as if the professor was trying to blow out the flame of passion I had for journalism — I thought, for a second, that I had enough.
But my desire to tell the stories of people who look like me has always been greater than my desire to quit.
Microaggressions are hard to explain (especially as a Black woman whose voice is already stereotyped as aggressive, hard to manage, and uncontrollable), but they are an everyday occurrence. When I ask how to deal with it, I keep being told by mentors, editors, and long-time journalists — above all else, have resilience.
To be resilient means to overcome difficulties with swiftness. As I start to run out of my resilience, a future in journalism seems less and less feasible.
I’ve had three journalism “jobs” since that class. I wrote for The San Diego Union-Tribune as a watchdog and accountability reporting intern in the summer of 2021. Still, the amount of imposter syndrome, fear, and unworthiness I felt leading up to this position was incredible. Yet this job turned out to be the most validating journalism experience I ever had. My mentor was a Black woman who uplifted and supported me every step of the way. She believed in me when I didn’t think I even belonged.
Before working at the Union-Tribune, I had two unpaid internships, one at J. Walcher Communications, a PR/Marketing firm, and another at L.A. STYLE Magazine. Despite learning on the job, I can unequivocally say I should have been paid.
Poorly paid internships force young reporters of color to either work multiple jobs while interning or live paycheck to paycheck for the sake of gaining experience. It can be difficult to draw the line between sounding ungrateful and expressing the honest truth about an industry that impacts society, politics, and culture.
It’s critical we tell our own stories
“I would have a very nice apartment right now in Chicago and I would be a writer for the Chicago Tribune. That’s how different my experience would be.” That’s what Fatima Zaidi said when I asked what her life would be like if she were entering the journalism industry as a white man.
“If not, then I would probably already be an intern for CNN for their editorial 2022 position in the spring. But I’m not because I’m not either of those things.”
Zaidi is a 23-year-old proud South Asian woman and hijab-observing Muslim based in Chicago. She graduated with her bachelor’s in journalism in Dec. 2021 and told me she became a journalist to “elevate the voices of the oppressed.”
At the epicenter of her work, she prioritizes people who look like her — to rewrite the narrative of minority groups, Muslims, and the South Asian diaspora that she said has almost always been written wrong by white journalists.
Sources entrusting Zaidi with their testimony, experiences, and stories have kept her going. She said all of the thank you’s from interviewees have validated her right to be a journalist.
“I keep thinking to myself that this next generation is eventually going to come into your newsrooms,” she said, and when they do, “this outdated mindset that these old white men have, is going to be the first thing kicked out of the door.”
As a hijab-observing Muslim, Zaidi said she feels a sense of relief seeing more hijab-observing reporters on the air. But she knows the lack of representation is not the fault of the community, but white supremacist ideologies that have rejected so many women that look like her.
“It is just abominable to see how these men have rejected these brilliant, highly intellectual women, first of all, because they are women. And second of all, because they still observe the hijab, which I think for me at this point is just blasphemous,” she said.
Zaidi relayed the story of a broadcast journalist who wore a black hijab in her demo reel and was rejected because the white male news director equated the hijab with a symbol of oppression.
“Hearing stories like these definitely does sink the hearts of some of these young, rising Muslim women who want to be in this profession,” she said.
As an emerging journalist with dreams of being a broadcast reporter for Al Jazeera, Zaidi is, unfortunately, no stranger to fear and rejection. She often considers the realities of being a Muslim woman in journalism: fear of assault, ignorance, unjustly being detained, kidnapping, and murder.
“Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves. I do not want to live a life of humiliation,” she said. “God forbid something like that does happen to me in the future where I’m trying to shed light on oppressed communities… Well, it is a death of honor and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
When Zaidi wanted an internship at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, most of the people she saw getting hired and receiving bylines in the paper were white. She said this fueled her discouragement, making her doubt whether she’d be able to land a job in the future.
“I would always think to myself, ‘what am I doing wrong’ that I cannot be given this same opportunity,” Zaidi said.
Not all of her applications, pitches, and ideas have been completely shot down and rejected — she interned at The Organization for World Peace, a nonprofit based in Toronto, Canada, which was a turning point for her. Post-graduation, she has been working as its senior correspondent.
Zaidi said some of the most prestigious TV news networks, like CNN, BBC, and MSNBC, are lacking in their representation of Muslim women. She questions where the hijab observing anchors are.
“What is lacking in the Muslim women that are coming out to you — wanting to be anchors or correspondents or on the air reporters — where you are not giving them opportunities?” she said.
Success is relative, and for Zaidi, “making it” is getting into one of the major TV markets so she can “show the world how journalism is properly done, how justice is actually obtained for those who have been persecuted for far too long now.”
Her unequivocal resilience and passion for journalism will undoubtedly support her in her dreams of being an international correspondent for Al Jazeera. Zaidi has channeled much of her anxiety, anger, and frustration back into her work: creating portfolios, gathering video clips for news packages, heavy editing, and writing.
“I take a lot of pride when I say that I am a heavily resilient person,” she said. “While people do tell me no, I don’t like to take no for an answer.”
One foot in, one foot out
During her entire time in journalism, Amy Qin has felt imposter syndrome.
“I think it’s always something on my mind … I feel like I have one foot in the door and one foot out in a sense because I’m generally very risk-averse,” she said.
Qin is a 25-year-old Chinese American woman based in Chicago — she graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s in history but had a brewing interest in journalism. After landing an unpaid internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she said it was a reality check about what it would take to become a full-time journalist.
At the Post-Gazette, she said the politically conservative owner was known to “lash out at people in the newsroom and yell at people, just being very inappropriate. That was really jarring to me.” Qin’s editor was also overworked and often didn’t have the time to mentor and manage her, she said.
“I just think overall, the industry on a broader level feels very unsustainable and unsuitable for journalists of color who don’t have generational wealth or something they can fall back on,” Qin said. “It’s very disheartening.”
With a lack of direction, she told me she was pushed away from journalism and into the business consulting world of corporate America. After spending three years at a consulting job she found unfulfilling, she decided to come back.
But since returning to the industry, Qin sensed a gap in knowledge between her and her colleagues.
Those feelings are fed, in part, because her education wasn’t in journalism — she never learned, for example, where to put an attribution and when it’s appropriate to begin recording an interview.
Dealing with imposter syndrome, being underpaid (or not paid at all), and working in a space that didn’t always feel supportive of people of color, has made her question if she should quit.
Many young reporters are often encouraged to work their way up, which usually involves moving to a different city with a smaller market, away from family and community support. For some, this can be daunting. (And a route Qin said, “I totally disagree with.”)
“I do like journalism and that’s what keeps me going… but it’s a little exploitative.”
One of the unspoken beliefs in journalism is the willingness to make significant sacrifices to do what you love. Recently, Qin applied to the Los Angeles Times Metpro fellowship, which required a five-page reporting test, resume, cover letter, clips, and three evaluations from references — after spending days to complete the application, she questioned: “Am I getting paid to do this?”
Journalism is a competitive industry and more challenging to break into as a reporter who is not white, male, able-bodied, or part of the queer community.
Qin said her family, who are immigrants from China, have put a lot of pressure on her to pursue a different career. If she benefitted from white privilege, Qin said she would likely be in a different circumstance financially and wouldn’t have to navigate spaces with the same caution.
On top of this, she said she’s had to put up with feeling she has to speak for the entire Chinese community and report on them.
With three internships under her belt, Qin said she would love to be a full-time journalist and is optimistic she can land a job but is still wary as she claws her way back to the industry — she currently works as a freelancer.
“I really do think it could be different in journalism. I honestly think corporate America does a better job at diversity pipelines and retaining people and sometimes treating their workers a lot better than journalism internships do,” she said.
Remnants of self-doubt
Journalism school didn’t teach Destiny Jackson about freelancing or, more importantly, racial bias in newsrooms.
“When you approach a company where you want to intern, it’s mostly going to be white people,” said Jackson, an entertainment journalist for Netflix Tudum, an editorial site run by Netflix. “Your teachers at school are going to be white people … which is why the bias is not covered.”
Jackson is a 28-year-old, Black American woman based in Los Angeles. She graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s in journalism, but her journey to journalism was plagued with challenges every step of the way.
After working an unpaid internship at PBS SoCal, Jackson landed a paid internship at The Wrap in 2015 and moved on to another paid internship at The Hollywood Reporter the year after. Despite her success in getting internships, something didn’t feel right.
“I never felt good enough, ever,” she said.
Jackson told me about the series of events that led to her self-doubt eating through her confidence as a writer. Despite her appreciation for internship opportunities, she said navigating those spaces left her feeling unheard and that editors did not take her ideas as seriously as her colleagues.
“Out here you really have to prove yourself, especially in entertainment journalism, because it’s so, so white,” she said. “It’s so incredibly white.”
When working for The Hollywood Reporter and covering red carpet events, Jackson said it was normal for her to be asked, “What are you doing here?” or “Why are you here?” For her to be seen as an equally capable and competent reporter, she would have had to be a white man — she said as a white man, it would be much easier to access events, people, and spaces without constantly being questioned if she belonged.
Being the only Black woman at nearly all of her internships, she said she was often unsure how to ask questions and approach editors for one-to-one mentorship.
After her internships, five years passed before she picked up a pen again. During her break, Jackson was stuck in a rut working at Disneyland while dealing with a family situation that compounded her already crippling imposter syndrome.
Jackson said her mother struggled with drug addiction and also cared for her brother, who is autistic. “My mom’s spiraling. I have to take care of my brother because my mom’s spiraling. I was like in my early 20s,” she said.
These challenges reminded Jackson that, as a young girl, it was always her dream to be a journalist, no matter what. But her path forward was anything but clear or certain. She needed a mentor.
After transferring to Cal State Dominguez Hills, she finally got one.
“I finally had a journalism teacher that was not only able to give me tremendous feedback, he also valued me as a person and [he valued] my ideas,” Jackson said.
She credits her white journalism professor for being the unlikely support and guidance she needed to help her re-envision her worth as a writer. This mentorship was enough to ease her insecure thoughts and propel her back into journalism.
But Jackson knew then, just as she knows now, that having other Black journalists and editors to talk to and support one another is crucial to the endurance of Black reporters. She said there were times when she felt alone because of the microaggressions she experienced in interviews and at events.
“Being a Black woman trying to navigate entertainment journalism is really hard because you don’t have the support necessary, usually because your spaces are very white,” she said. “So it’s easy for the remnants of self-doubt and imposter syndrome to come through.”
Even now, working as an entertainment journalist for Netflix, Jackson said her job fuels her imposter syndrome. Prior to landing the gig, she interviewed for a different job at Vulture and got rejected. Still, one of the Black editors at the magazine, who departed shortly after Jackson interviewed, recommended her to Netflix.
“I got really lucky,” she said.
Had it not been for that Black editor, her white college professor, and fellow reporters championing her along the way, Jackson said her journey to journalism would have died during the five years.
“I think I had to have a nervous breakdown because I was so full of self-doubt … this is my lowest point, now I either go lower like my mom and suffer and blame everybody else for my problems or I really dig in and rebuild my own confidence even though I don’t have the support system that I should.”
Without the necessary support, more talented, driven, and highly competent Black reporters will leave — some may never return to the industry. Jackson hopes to get her contract renewed with Netflix Tudum at the end of February.
“I think for the college journalism experience they need to … hire some Black journalists, period,” she said. “There’s no reason why you can’t have a person of color journalist at every school in this fucking country, especially at a journalism school.”
The thread that connects us all
There is a myth that I often hear among young reporters: that we got “lucky” to land an internship or a first job. There was no luck when we hustled, worked our asses off, and networked to get an opportunity that felt unattainable.
I am incredibly grateful and proud of each and every experience I have had, but I sit with a deep realization that the reason I am still standing is because of my own resilience.
In my short career, I’ve seen talented journalists of color wash out because the racism, anti-Blackness, and sexism surrounding journalism was too much to bear. Coming from a minority community and entering the field often means you have families to care for. There is no pot of generational wealth to fall back on, and a lack of representation is the norm.
It’s damaging to know that my future either lies in being an overworked, underpaid reporter or scrapping journalism altogether to work in the marketing industry. As much as I’d like to have the best of both worlds, my mental health has to come first.
I accomplished so much partially because I put my mental health on the back burner and made overworking my primary coping mechanism. Would I do it again? No. Do I regret it? Also no.
I became a journalist to uplift the communities that I grew up in, empower the voices of those who’ve been silenced and hold people accountable for their misconduct.
But the resilience that so many people told me to have is running out. My energy is rapidly depleting. I genuinely cannot imagine myself doing anything else, but passion doesn’t always pay the bills.
I decided to write this for the Black women in my DM’s who wanted to be a part of this story but were in fear their reputation would be damaged, the brilliant creatives I’ve worked with in school and in internships who ran out of their resilience, and because even if writing this story changes the viewpoints editors, journalists, and hiring managers have of me, just know — I would rather be broke and at peace, than make a lot of money sacrificing my integrity.
It’s unfortunate that resiliency is currently a requirement for journalists of color. It’s unfortunate we have to take unpaid and low-paying jobs to break into the industry. It’s unfortunate our value is sometimes equated to how diverse we can make a newsroom look instead of our skillset. And it’s unfortunate journalists of color have to constantly rise above racism, microaggressions, sexism, and misogyny to follow our dreams.
But we are the future of this industry. We are invaluable. And it’s time the industry listened to understand, but even more so, listened with the intent of creating change.
To the white journalists, editors, and professors reading this, make the space to listen to journalists of color, educate yourselves on the microaggressions and stereotypes you may be contributing to, and advocate for us to receive a better living wage.
I will not let a profession I know and love silence me into thinking I am not worth so much more than I am getting. Although this is only a fragment of my story, the thread of resiliency is what connects us all — it’s what binds emerging journalists of color.
I am Anissa Durham. I am a 21-year-old Black, Nicaraguan, and El Salvadorian woman with an associate’s degree in journalism and a bachelor’s degree in marketing. Every day, my voice gets stronger, which is why, as early as I am in my career, I am emboldened to call out an industry that prides itself on transparency and justice yet falls short of it daily.
Anissa Durham is a Black and Central American journalist based in San Diego, CA. She has written for The San Diego Union-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Voice of San Diego, and inewsource. You can find her at anissa-durham.com and on Twitter at @AnissadMedia.
This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Curtis Yee.