News

What It's Like Being Canada's First Hijab-Wearing News Anchor

Ginella Massa is challenging stereotypes and facing her trolls head on.

by Sarah Hagi
03 December 2016, 5:00am

Photo via Dan Lauckner

It's not every day a new hire at CityNews Toronto makes headlines worldwide. Following her debut on the station last week, Ginella Massa appeared in publications from The Hollywood Reporter to The Times of Israel as Canada's first hijab-wearing news anchor.

While Massa's accomplishment might be new for viewers in Canada and a novelty to some—it's a goal she's been working toward for most of her professional life. Beginning in 2010, Massa has worked behind the camera as a producer and journalist for newsrooms all over Canada before appearing on CityNews.

As Islamophobia increases in Canada, it's clear Massa's had to work twice as hard to become the first of her kind as a television reporter. As a hijab-wearing woman in media myself, I spoke to Massa about her experiences as a Muslim in the newsroom and what it means to be the "first."

VICE: As a writer myself and someone who wears a hijab, it's amazing to see representation. Were you trying to be the first hijab-wearing news anchor?
Ginella Massa: I was just trying to be a reporter. I always had an interest in broadcast media in general. As a kid, I thought maybe I'd go into radio because I thought it doesn't matter what I look like. My mom was the one who encouraged me and said, "If you want to be on TV, go for it. Just because it hasn't been done before, doesn't mean you can't do it." So I studied communications at York University, and I did the broadcast program at Seneca, and that's when I got a taste of what it could be like in that field. We had a studio there, and we did stories, and I realized I loved it and wanted to pursue it. I worked as a producer and writer for three or four years before I became an on-air reporter.

From my own experience, it's hard to show you're interested in a multitude of things that have nothing to do with wearing a hijab. When I started off writing, I was sort of pigeonholed as an identity-based writer. What's that like for you?

I didn't want to be pigeonholed into being a writer or writing about Muslim issues. Obviously that colors my experience and how I see the world, but also I want to hear other people's experiences and stories. I want to be the vessel to tell a story. It does creep in, in that the stories that I pitch come from my community because those are the stories that I'm hearing and the networks I'm tapped into, so I do like to tell those kinds of stories among others.

Do you want to shine a light on being a Muslim women in this position?
In a big way, me just being in the room says a lot about Muslim women and what they can do and what they can be. I don't have to be talking about religion or Islam. By me being there reading the news with my hijab it's saying a lot. I think my focus at the end of the day is to be the best journalist I can be and hope that it tells people about what Muslim women can be and do.

I do feel similarly. A lot of times, I'm the only visible Muslim woman in a work setting, and I fear it means I'm the only representation a lot of people have.

You get caught in between that because you feel an obligation to be a voice for a group that isn't often heard from, but at the same time, you don't want that to be the only thing you're identified as. It's hard to find that balance.

What do you do to keep that balance?
A lot of it is trying to empower folks in my community to make their voices heard. Like saying, if you have a story or an issue—pitch it to a newspaper or outlet. We often suffer in silence and say the mainstream media isn't talking about xyz. And I say, have you sent an email? Have you offered yourself up to talk to media? And the answer's often no, so I think a big part of it too is not being the only person who's telling those stories but encouraging other people to take up that space, and take that right to have their stories heard because they're a part of this society as well.

Photo via Facebook

Do you think that some people don't see it as an option?
Of course. Growing up, I didn't see anyone who looked like me on TV and that tells you about where you do or don't belong or what positions will and won't be available to you. Look at me, I put a limitation on myself because I said, "Oh, I won't go into radio because TV is not a place for people like me." So we do put those limitations on ourselves. So I think being out there and being visible can sometimes change your perception as to what you can achieve because someone else has done it.

What were other factors that made you realize, "I will do this regardless of any stereotype or assumption." Was there community support?
My first internship was a factor. When I first started in the industry, it was surprising to me how few people of color there were working the newsrooms that I worked in. I started to be tapped as a resource by my manager. It was a time where there were a lot of discussion about where religion fit in society, the Quebec charter of values was something that was being talked about. I would start to be looked to as someone who was connected to those communities. People would say, "What do you think about this? What are people saying about this?" And I would give my opinion or insight. This was just an example of how important it is to have this diversity in our newsrooms because it meant tapping into different communities and experiences and networks. If we really want to tell stories of our societies, our newsroom has to look like those societies. Not just in front of the camera but behind-the-scenes as well because we all bring those experiences to our story meetings we exchange ideas. We challenge one other because we have different experiences and different opinions.

How has the feedback been since the story went international? Has there been a lot of negativity?
For the most part, it has been really positive and encouraging. It's crazy how international it's gone. The more exposure I get the more hate I'm exposed to, and it's still in the minority in the sense that the most stuff I receive is positive. It is hard to read the negative stuff because it's really hateful. As much as there's not a lot of it, it can hit the hardest and feel the loudest. I try not to read comments, but you can't ignore Twitter. Sometimes I just have to laugh because it's so ridiculous. The hate comes from people who've never watched my work, they just hate how I look. I'll happily take criticism of my work, but if it's just to say get that hijab off my TV screen, they can just change the channel.

Does being "the first" come with a lot of pressure?
For me, I've tried hard to be the best journalist I can be, and I use that as a measuring stick as my goal. I feel like if I'm doing that, that should be my focus. So I try not to let that pressure get to me about what people are doing. I just have to be true to myself and my decisions and do my best as a journalist.

What would you say to people who do ask for guidance?
It's a really hard industry to be in right now. It's not glamorous, it means working crappy hours, it means working weekends and evenings and not having a social life. You have to really love it and want to do it for the right reasons. You have to be willing to work really hard to stand out and ask tough questions. It's not easy. It's not gonna be handed to you, and, for me, I had to work twice as hard.

Are there any instances where people have been really unfair to you?
Anytime I do a story that has to do with the Muslim issue, I do take notice. It's not to do with me but more the issue and that has to do with Islamophobia and racism. I think those comments would be there even if I wasn't the one telling the story. In the past, I had a colleague tell me, "I don't think a woman in a hijab is ever gonna report on TV because it's just too distracting." I don't think he was malicious, I don't think he knew my aspirations at the time (I was a producer then)—he was just saying it as a comment. He was making an observation, and it's that kind of attitude I worried about. A lot of times people won't say it to your face, but you worry that's what they're thinking. So, at the same time, I'm here, I did it, and the sky didn't fall.

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