Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi (00:00): Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World, where in 15 minutes or less, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it for the better.

Lama Alsafi (00:21): My name is Lama Alsafi and I'm the host of this podcast. On this episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World we're talking about the stories that don't often make the headlines, the role of the media in society today, and those who go out of their way to capture and share the stories that are often ignored by the mainstream press. Our guest today is Neha Wadekar. Neha is an independent multimedia journalist reporting across the globe. Neha's work has been published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist, PBS News Hour, The Guardian and so much more. We're very excited to have her here with us today. She's received fellowships from Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, the United Nations Foundation, the Fuller Project, the Overseas Press Club and the International Women's Media Foundation. Neha joins us remotely from Nairobi today. Welcome to the podcast Neha and thank you for making the time to meet with us today.

Neha Wadekar (01:15): Thank you, and thank you so much for having me.

Lama Alsafi (01:18): Thank you. Can you tell our listeners a bit about what inspired you to become a journalist and what are the kind of issues that you report on in your work?

Neha Wadekar (01:26): So I became a journalist because I love people and I think there's really no other job like this one. You know, as a journalist, you get to travel the world, you have somewhat of an open invitation to dive into communities, families and the lives of individuals, and you get to ask them questions about their experiences. You really get to know them and you just learn. I feel like with every single story I am constantly learning. My eyes are opened and I get to do this every single day. So it is, in my opinion, the best job in the world. And I feel very lucky to be able to do it.

Being based in Nairobi, I obviously cover foreign news. My focus is primarily on East Africa and the African continent, but within that, I do a lot of work covering stories about women and girls. This is something I'm very passionate about. In addition to that this year I'm focusing for example, on climate change. This is something I've been reporting on over the past few years, but I'd like to do a lot more of it. So that's kind of my theme for the year is going to be climate change. People are really, really affected in a way that I think we don't necessarily see in many parts of the Western world. And in addition, I mean, I cover things like emerging democracies, elections, business and tech across the continent, and a whole host of other topics.

Lama Alsafi (02:52): Neha what would you consider to be an under-reported story or topic in the mainstream media today?

Neha Wadekar (02:59): [Laughs] Really everything. And I'll explain what I mean. I mean, I am from the U.S. originally and whenever I go home I notice, you know, I'm watching broadcast news or I'm reading the papers and something that really alarms me is this shift towards opinion and commentary in my, any cases rather than news. I think there's obviously a polarization of news outlets leaning towards either the left or the right. And, you know, you can read a newspaper or watch the first 45 minutes of a newscast without seeing any foreign news at all, and I think that's a problem, right. I mean, there's an entire world out there, but we have such a hyper focus on the domestic. And I think that's a challenge that a lot of different countries face, right. That there's this huge focus on, let's say the horse race of politics, or what's going on in the, you know, the celebrity scene, and that's what people are consuming.

Neha Wadekar (03:54): And I think, you know, the days where you had reporters in every city around the world, you had bureaus in every city around the world, you know, with budget cuts and the way that the news industry is heading that has really pared down. And so I think we need more foreign news period.

But of course also we need stories about communities that are not often featured in the news. And that could be, surprisingly, women and girls. Although we are half of the human population, I think that there's a serious lack of coverage on topics that affect women and girls, marginalized communities, people who have a lower income, you know, people of different races, different sexual orientation, different religions. I mean, all of this is stuff that up until now has not really been covered adequately because the people who have been doing the covering have tended to be white cis males. And so I think this is particularly important when we talk about diversity in newsrooms—that all of those stories are under-reported, all of these stories are under-covered. And one way that we can really combat that is to make sure that we diversify our newsrooms more.

Lama Alsafi (05:08): Do you think that there's a link between a lack of diversity in the newsroom and the stories that end up being reported in the news?

Neha Wadekar (05:15): Absolutely. You know, with news, we always try to say that journalists are objective and neutral observers, and I think most of the journalists that I know to the best of our ability, we try to do that. That being said, people see the world through the lens of the experience that they've lived. And so determining what is important, what is newsworthy, what we can cover and how we can cover it, really depends on the journalist and their point of view. So if we only have a certain type of journalist, or if media organizations have a certain type of executive at the top, we are going to see a filtering of the stories that people consider important. And generally that filtering is going lean towards what, again, sort of a white cis male, you know, audience thinks is important because historically those have been the people who have run news organizations and have been journalists. And so I do think there is a direct link and that's something we need to work on as an industry.

Lama Alsafi (06:15): One of the major themes you focus on in your work is the intersection between gender and human rights. Why do you think gender is an important and under-reported topic to shed light on in the media?

Neha Wadekar (06:25): You know, stories about women and girls are actually stories about people. But far too often, I think stories about women and girls are kind of pushed to the side, right. I mean, there's so many significant publications that will have a, you know, section dedicated towards stories about women and girls, but why is that, right? Why is it that we don't just have those stories in the mainstream media, on the front pages? And I think a lot of the reason is because the editors and the journalists who are telling those stories are concerned that people don't have an interest in hearing them, right. Stories about women in the workforce about child care, about, you know, sexual and reproductive health and rights, about abortion. I mean, we could go on and on. Those are still considered niche stories, but really they're not, right. They're stories about half of the human population. And so I think, you know, telling stories about women and girls and making sure that people understand that these are actually human stories. These are stories about human rights, that it is critical to make sure that we keep doing that until the point that we don't even call them women's stories anymore. They're just stories.

Lama Alsafi (07:35): Why should journalists and mainstream media cast a wider net in terms of the stories they report and how can they do this better?

Neha Wadekar (07:42): I think that the more that we can report on around the world, the more that people know, and the more that people know, the more that people can do, right. I mean, journalists' role is to impart information and knowledge, things that people don't have the opportunity to see firsthand, but that are important. And, you know, we've seen that both domestically and we've seen it internationally, right. I mean, if you think about, let's say apartheid in South Africa. Most people living in other places in the world will not really be able to understand the atrocities that happened in South Africa without seeing the media reports, without seeing the photographs, without reading the stories. And it was only through that imparting of information that the global community was able to stand up and say, look, we need to do something about this, that people could become activists, people could work towards change.

Neha Wadekar (08:37): And so, you know, it might be idealist—I know that there are journalists who probably disagree with my level of idealism here—but I really do think that the more knowledge that people have, the more change we can actually make as a society, and as, you know, the human race. And again, you know, the way that we can do this better, I think goes back to again, diversity in the newsroom, not just among journalists, but on the top ranks of media organizations, because they're the ones ultimately who can determine what goes into a paper or what makes it onto the air.

And then also, having lived abroad, I mean, the critical importance of local journalists. I wouldn't be able to tell any of the stories that I tell without collaboration with local journalists who are often the hosts in the countries that I work in. They're the ones who help me get contacts. They're the ones who show me around when I'm on the ground to make sure that I'm safe, and they do it because they want the stories of their country to get out to the wider world. And so working with those local journalists as partners, taking those stories from them and making sure their voices are heard is also so important in making sure that we cast that wide net and we get the stories that otherwise wouldn't be told.

Lama Alsafi (09:52): Neha, has the increasing polarization of politics impacted the trust you think that people have in the work of international journalists?

Neha Wadekar (10:01): Oh, absolutely. I think, you know, and there's numbers and there's data to support this. I mean the media organizations do polls all the time and NGOs, nonprofits also do this and try to understand from people exactly what trust they have in the media. And I think that trust is declining more and more, and that's really unfortunate, right, because it's very difficult to fight against that.

You know, as a reporter who does try to kind of stay in the center and just make sure that I'm getting as much of a story as I can, and then imparting that directly to people, it can be very frustrating to run up against people who, let's say I'm on Twitter and I posted a story and, you know, I'm getting all of these comments from people saying, "Oh, well, this is a liberal publication and you obviously have an agenda" you know, and I put [laughs] days and weeks and months of work into a story that I've tried to report the best that I possibly can, and, you know, that's, people's reaction to the story. You know, half of it is me preaching to the choir, people who already agree with me and half of it is me, you know, preaching to people who will never agree with me. And, you know, I think that's really difficult and dangerous, and I think people are working on how to fix this or how to reverse the trend. But I don't think that we're there yet.

Lama Alsafi (11:17): Do you think that there's been an overall decline over the past couple of decades in the ability of the public to think critically about the types of media that we're consuming on a daily basis?

Neha Wadekar (11:30): I think that's a good question. I mean, I can only really speak to my lived experience, you know, I'm 33 and so I can't really speak to the decades before that. It's not that there has not been a polarization of news. It's not that this kind of disparity has not existed, of course it has as long as probably politics have existed, but I do think that with social media, people are seeing what these big companies want them to see. And, you know, we've seen and heard about how people's news feeds are kind of segmented, right. And if you lean to the right, you're going to see certain stories. If you lean to the left, you're going to see certain stories, and the algorithms know exactly how to give you what you want to see. And you know, that puts people in a silo and it also means that it is difficult for people to think critically, because it's very hard to tell what is factual and what is opinion.

Journalists who have had training and journalists who have been in the industry and conduct themselves a certain way, they know that you need to triple check your facts. You need to check where your data is coming from. How was the study conducted, in what way? And really kind of critically analyze that before you present information to an audience. But now with the kind of spread of, you know, Facebook and other platforms, it has been both good because it gives people access to a platform that they otherwise wouldn't have had, it has democratized people's voices and that's really important, but it also has a dangerous flip side where I do think it's affected people's ability to think critically and analyze what they're reading.

Lama Alsafi (13:11): Neha finally, how can our listeners who might be listening at home or in their car right now, how can they make a difference when it comes to under-reported stories? What can they do to advocate for more inclusion and diversity in the media?

Neha Wadekar (13:22): I think listeners can make a difference by reading, right. Reading, watching, listening, you know, it's very easy to kind of click on the flashy headlines. Maybe you read just the headline, maybe you read the first paragraph and then you move on, but people put a lot of work into their stories. And you know, I am as attached to the bottom of my story as I am to the top of it. So it's always nice to know that people are reading the entire thing. And so I first think, you know, reading and watching and listening critically and giving stories the time that they deserve to really understand the nuances of any particular issue, I think that's important. And of course sharing those stories, right. I mean, everybody now is on social media.

Neha Wadekar (14:08): So sharing those stories with your networks, providing your opinion about those stories and sending it out to your friends and your family.

And advocating for more inclusion and diversity in mainstream media I think has to do with the way that we watch and consume, right. If it's certain shows or certain people who are constantly being read and shared, then that's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People are going to continue to hire that certain kind of person. But if people are reading and watching things that are outside of what is considered mainstream—stories by women, stories by people of colour, stories that are in smaller media outlets—I think that that is going to show the people at the top that those are valuable stories, and those are valuable reporters. And I think it's going to help bring those people into the mainstream media more and more and get the stories told.

Lama Alsafi (15:03): All right, well Neha Wadekar, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for sharing your passion and expertise, and we're really glad you could make time for us today.

Neha Wadekar (15:11): Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.

Lama Alsafi (15:14): Thank you. I hope many of us will think more about the stories we see in the media and those we don't and why, and what we can all do to advocate for the inclusion of more diversity in voices and topics in the media that we consume. And thank you to all of our listeners for joining us today. You can catch every episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and by visiting care.ca/podcast.