Rumneek Johal: Not Backing Down in the Journalism World

July 05, 2023

School of Communication alumm Rumneek Johal is a BC reporter at PressProgress. She navigates the field of journalism to empower marginalized communities.  

We chatted with Rumneek about her career and SFU experience.

For students interested in journalism, what does your day to day as a reporter at Press Progress look like?

We have reporters across Canada, and I'm responsible for finding my own stories that I want to report on in BC and pitching them to my editor and then pursuing them. This involves doing the research, and finding sources to speak to. I've also filled in for our editor, so I've actually been the one publishing articles a few times, which has been really neat. I also help with our TikTok content, which has been fun and cool.

Day to day, it depends on what story I'm working on or investigating that week, but usually we have weekly editorial meetings, and that's where we go over pitches and stories that are on our radar. At Press Progress, we do have more of a focus on politics, like highlighting policy stories, corruption, corporate greed, all of the really fun, exciting topics. Then, on TikTok, we really try to bring these long, complex news stories into digestible pieces, where we give summaries to people who maybe like to get their news in a different way. I do find on TikTok we're reaching a different audience that maybe is a little bit younger and also engages in media a little bit differently and is super passionate about the stories we write, so we're meeting people where they're at a little bit.

What approaches or pathways would you recommend to students wanting to get into journalism?

I would say get involved wherever you can, whether it's at your school, your own blog or podcast, trying to get involved with other blogs, or submitting freelance pieces. The advice that I was given, and the advice that I would give other people, is that you really just have to start. We second guess if something is the right thing to do or when the right time to do something is, and it's probably not going to be perfect and you're not going to be great at it, but you just have to start.

When I first started, I think about the first article I submitted for The Peak. It was so heavily edited, I just got it back and thought, “Oh my God, they edited so much of this.” But it's because I didn’t know what I was doing, and that's okay. Everybody needs a little piece of humble pie to fall down to earth.

Just start doing a little bit at a time because at least you're building your portfolio and then you can showcase it later. When I applied to do my Master's of Journalism at UBC, it's not like I had some crazy extensive resume to apply with. I really was just scratching the surface and getting started and wanting to learn more and pursue more. Find a way to start putting your work out there and slowly build up your portfolio and your confidence as well. It doesn't hurt to have a website of some kind to refer people to, even if you don't have an extensive portfolio yet, or even if you don't really know if you're going to write blogs all the time.

How did your SFU experiences shape your success today?

I graduated from SFU in 2018, and then I finished my Master's in 2020. I was involved in the newspaper and the radio, student groups and things like that, so I think that helped me a lot. I also really enjoyed communications as a discipline which I know some people might not agree with, but I'm really into theory and academia. In my Master’s, I ended up doing a final research project that centered on Surrey, and half of the portion of it was a literature review, so it was academic based. I feel like on that side of things, I did really lean on my communications background to help. I think a lot of my SFU journey encouraged me to do my Master’s.

Obviously, I didn't have fun when we were doing a million essays, but those assignments showed me how to draw research and theory into my final research project. Also, developing more of a critical lens was extremely helpful, and I think even still helps. When you're interrogating and breaking apart media to understand it, you can better tell stories because you're able to decipher things and be able to apply that critical lens to various stories that are in the media.

As someone that has diverse career experiences, do you have any advice for students currently deciding on a career path?

I think what I've always tried to do is not model my voice and myself after my career, but to just be who I am and take opportunities that align with that. I've been very fortunate in my career to be able to just do those things and not do things that I don’t want to do. Once you find the things that align with what your goals are and what you want to achieve, I would say really stick to our voice and what you know works for you. For example, at Press Progress, we do a lot of investigations and things like that and I know I never have to compromise my view of what is right or wrong. I can do investigations and call the government out or call institutions out and hold people accountable and not feel like I'm stifling my own voice.

I’d also say be open to the different ways that your journey will take you. I've been lucky that a lot of opportunities have found me, which has been great, but that's because I was open to trying different things and really just open to where these opportunities will take me.

As a Punjabi woman, how do you find yourself fitting into predominantly white spaces?          

It is tough, honestly. I don't experience it as necessarily a challenge in my workplace currently, but in the past, I've really had to try to find ways to make myself feel more comfortable in the spaces that I'm in because I think that there is a certain comfort level when you see people who look like you in the spaces that you work. We are seeing more progress now, versus when I first started in terms of seeing more racialized people in various positions in media, but we're not seeing it as much at the management level.

As a Punjabi woman who's super outspoken and out there in terms of my opinions and my personality, I've been lucky to have jobs that don't stifle that. But I have had experiences in the past where I felt out of place as a result. It's maybe not overt, but I think that sometimes it's not built into the fabric of certain institutions to actively foster diverse stories. You can have a diverse team, but if you're not actively allowing that diversity to reflect in the stories that you're telling, then that's a problem. You see a lot of racialized women get to a certain point and then leave the industry, because there really is only so far you can go as far as I've seen. I’m really wanting to push past that and see more racialized women in positions of power, and positions of leadership in newsrooms, so we can just start changing the norms a little bit more.

In what sorts of ways did you try to make yourself feel comfortable in those spaces?

I think honestly, just advocating. It's always uncomfortable, but advocating for the stories that you know matter because sometimes your editors or the people in leadership may not understand the significance of a story. If there's a story I'm telling about international students or the South Asian community, and I know that it's extremely important because of where I'm situated, my editor may not necessarily understand or see that from their standpoint. So really use your voice to advocate and explain why something matters and not take your first no as an answer because sometimes editors may say no because they don't really understand the significance of something. In journalism, if you know something is important, don't give up on it. Keep researching to find a different angle that might work better for your editor, for that publication or whatever, to make sure that you actually can tell the stories that you know matter because you know your communities better than anybody else.

How do you deal with imposter syndrome?

Any time I feel imposter syndrome, it's because I've never been in that position before.

Often people who look like me feel like we're not good enough because we're just never really given these opportunities. What I've told myself is if I'm in a room or if I have a seat at the table, it's because I earned my way there. It's not that somebody just gave me an opportunity because they felt like it. I obviously have the skills and capabilities to do that thing. But imposter syndrome has been so real. I think it's just believing, “Oh why me? Why would somebody want me to do this thing?” Well obviously, something in my career or history that I've done has shown them that I deserve the right to be here. Impostor syndrome is so real for racialized women specifically, it's like the biggest doubt that we put in our own heads. I just remind myself it's not my doubt to carry. I think maybe other people might doubt me and my capabilities, but that doesn't mean I also have to doubt myself.

In this industry you need to have a really thick skin because you'll get crazy comments or people messaging you or emailing you all this crazy stuff. But honestly, really just remind yourself

why you do what you do. If people don't like what I do, that is totally within their right, but that's not going to stop me from doing what I'm doing at all.

Is there anything else that you would like to add or say to students?

I know this sounds so cliché, but you have to bet on yourself. I don't know if it's delusion that has got me to where I am, but you really have to just believe that you can get to where you want to be. I'm grateful that I always knew that I wanted to do journalism and pursue this career, but I really had to believe that I was capable of doing it in order to actually take the steps to do it.

There's going to be a million reasons why you think you can't or you think you shouldn't. You really have to follow that voice that's telling you to do something, whether it is journalism or whether it is anything else, and just pursue that, even against all odds, whether it is imposter syndrome or whether it is not seeing people who look like you, you really just have to keep trudging along. You have to know what it is that you want to ultimately achieve and just continue on that path and that trajectory with one foot in front of the other because that's the only way to get there.

What book is currently on your nightstand?

My friends and I started book club and we’re reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It's about a journalist who's interviewing this famous actress, Evelyn Hugo, about her life, and she ultimately ends up writing her memoir.