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Ka Man Mak Of The Oslo Desk: Five Things You Need To Thrive & Succeed As A Journalist

Mind your trauma — If you are like me covering pretty heavy and serious topics, check in with your mental health and personal trauma history. Give yourself the space to process and work through it so that you are mentally stronger when you get back into the work. Take another topic if you have to. Many of the interviewees I have spoken to were in vulnerable situations, so practice trauma-informed communication, and show compassion and respect for the interviewee.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ka Man Mak.

Ka Man Mak is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Oslo Desk where she leverages distinct journalistic practices and a trauma-informed approach with the goal of transforming the Norwegian media’s portrayal of racialized immigrant communities into a more accurate and complete representation. With her two Witness Projects, She Witness and They Witness, Ka Man covers immigration, identity, human rights, digital violence and violence in closed relationships through the lenses of gender and race.

As a British-born Hong Konger and advocate for diversity and inclusion in media, her news media platform, The Oslo Desk recently won EU Business News’ Online Journalism Enterprise Award 2022 and Blaze Inclusion Award’s Spark for Norway 2022 in media representation, as well as nominated for numerous awards.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I describe myself as an ‘accidental’ journalist. When I moved to Norway in 2011, I pursued a research career in micropaleontology and soil science for many years until eventually, I gave up. So I needed a new career path. I was blogging at the time and was expanding my network. When someone in my network opened up to me about her experience of being stalked by her boyfriend, and I was teaching a Norwegian journalist Cantonese so that he can prepare for his master’s degree in Hong Kong, it was like a sign from the universe pulling all these elements together and pulled me into the direction of becoming a journalist. I started to research stalking laws and interviewed an NGO regarding the issues, and tried to use the information he gave me to assist the acquaintance. I tried to get the story out to Norwegian newspapers but none of them picked it up. I ended up blogging it instead.

I decided then and there to set myself a mission to become a great journalist to get these stories out. I needed the ‘How’. So over the years, I attended countless workshops online, self-taught myself through googling handbooks and took a couple of diplomas. I was building my own degree with the resources I could find.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I was gaining work experience at a local newspaper and tried writing in Norwegian — a foreign language I learned to an intermediate level. I was covering a story of a black woman who was denied social benefits because she was also taking a student loan. She was a single mother struggling to find work and take care of her daughter. Her story really hit me as I was a single mother at the time trying to pursue my dream career whilst also struggling to gain financial stability. When I published her story, a backlash ensued. Trolls were feeding the thread, and I didn’t know how to respond in Norwegian at the time. My editor was on the phone asking me if I had actually called NAV — The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration — for a quote at all and if I had the case worker’s name as they were accusing me of fabricating the story. The friends of the black woman were also angry with me because of the backlash. I was glad that I was smart enough to record the calls I made to NAV and also got the documents to show the editors. But I felt unsafe and the editors did not have my back. My mind went blank and a part of me decided to quit journalism. The article became my last article for the local newspaper. I stopped writing for months.

After about half a year or so, I started to think that maybe there was a lesson to be learned. If I gave up then, I would position myself to be part of the problem rather than the solution. No doubt that there is racial bias in media, and I needed training and awareness on how to create a narrative that is more culturally sensitive. I began thinking deeply about the role of journalists and newsrooms — what value are we actually creating and what needs changing.

This dip in my career led me to establish The Oslo Desk, my own news platform, where I wanted to showcase how racialised communities can be better represented in media. I drew upon many schools of thought: constructive journalism, peace journalism, and systems thinking, through trauma-informed, intersectionality and gender lens.

Can you share the funniest mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson you learned from it?

I was downloading apps to record audio on my phone, where both I and the person on the call could be recorded. I tried so many that didn’t seem to work, and once there was a man who called me with very important information. Midway through the conversation, I saw that an app had automatically recorded our conversation, and I told him. He was really mad with me for not letting him know sooner. I did explain to him, that I wasn’t 100% sure. When we finished talking, I relistened to the audio recording and only heard my voice so our conversation was never recorded, and I let him know about it. So to avoid that happening again, I just stay home or find a quiet place so that I can put my phone on speaker and record it with an external voice recorder or through audacity on my computer.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Currently, I am working on an investigation funded partially by FrittOrd to look into family law and family violence among immigrant mothers in Norway. The investigation builds upon the short investigation I did between 2019 and 2020, where I wrote a series of articles that highlighted the complex issues found in family violence, especially regarding child custody cases and international law on parental child abduction.

Norwegian media has thus far only highlighted domestic violence through the lens of statistics and individual ‘incident-based’ stories without going into more depth. Therefore I am investigating with collective witness statements, NGOs, lawyers, police and other public institutions to fully contextualise this public health crisis.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” ~ Desmond Tutu

In 2019, I had four women coming to me for help to escape their abusive parents or partners. After feeling helpless, I decided to find NGOs to work with so that I can direct further women who come to me for help, to get the right support they need. This is where the Witness Projects developed. The She Witness Project tackles domestic violence pertaining to immigrant women in Norway, in collaboration with SWEA Caritas Norway (offering legal advice and workshops) and Humans for Humans (offering mental support and tackling human trafficking). Inspired by the work within the She Witness, They Witness project tackles discrimination experienced by immigrants and minorities living in Norway. Both these projects received some funding and comes under the umbrella — Witness Projects.

Another project I am involved in is with Lift Every Voice, where they are utilising our documentation during the We Can’t Breathe. Justice for George Floyd protests for exhibitions around galleries and museums.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I got so many that I don’t even know where to start. Early on in my career, I photographed an undocumented immigrant who sat outside the Norwegian parliament on a hunger strike. He was determined to get his right to stay and work as a political asylum seeker. He seemed friendly and deep in his thoughts. Most of the time, I was observing the interactions he had with his supposed supporters. I remembered a journalist near him whispering to him that he needed to do something to draw more media attention. He then sat outside the door of the Norwegian parliament. After weeks of photographing him, I get a message from him that he would set himself on fire. I froze and didn’t turn up because I feared that he was only doing it for the camera. From then on, I stopped photographing him.

Other interactions I had was with Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2021 and founder of The Rappler, a well-known Philippines news company. I met her years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, she was insightful, determined and brave. I have so much admiration for her to hold the line even with the constant threats she was facing. I was a little starstruck and asked for a selfie. I was so conscientious of how bad my phone was, I was apologising for it and she took my phone and said ‘Here, let’s try this.’ I never shared that photo until she won the Nobel Peace Prize and felt a new sense of encouragement to keep going with my journalism career. When I met her the second time, she was all smiles and bubbly in the Philippino community in Oslo.

Many Hong Kong activists, like Samuel Chu, Glacier Wong, and Jessica Chiu were all interesting to get to know. Outside their activism work, they seemed very human to me, going about their lives, working or studying. The last one, I could remember is a recent interview with an immigrant mother, who I remembered ending the interview by telling me that it was her birthday and that the interview and conversation we had on that day was a birthday gift to her. It’s often those tiny moments where I felt that although the stories I published may not bring justice, it allowed them to feel heard.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?

You don’t need a degree to become a journalist, start building a portfolio of stories and get them published. So, volunteer for your local newspaper or magazine. Journalism degrees do offer network and support, but they are not always up to date with the current landscape and new skills that are needed to get you ahead of the game, for example understanding data and technology are proving more and more needed. You might be better off doing a degree in economics, political science and public health as this ties into daily issues that are reported.

Being a journalist can be a lonely path, and won’t make you rich and famous. If you pick up challenging cases it can impact your mental health, so have a supportive network and set steps on how to manage your mental health. A career in journalism is quite demanding and the media landscape is constantly changing, so be fluid and gain as many skills as you can as they will be handy down the road.

A lot of first-stage journalists want to write in ‘I’ form articles, unless it is a personal witness account of an event, don’t hide behind opinion and debate pieces. Ask yourself — what credibility do I have in talking about this topic? Did I write a book? Done years of reporting on this topic?

Journalists abide by a code of ethics to seek truth, embody integrity, build trust and do no harm. Always look out for your blind zones and bias.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

The world will carry on operating and the cases you work on will always be neverending. Structural and cultural changes will always take time. Whatever that story is, it’s not worth it if you lose your sanity, health and wealth.

If you are freelancing, take up another job that helps pay the bills if you have to, or take time off to find your mental balance and physical strength if you can. No one can be better at taking good care of you than you yourself. So be gentle with yourself.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Through The Oslo Desk, I exposed the toxic work environment and labour work violations at SHE Community which has been gaining ground on leading in gender diversity issues through their SHE conference for years. I received many positive private messages that people felt relieved and that their voices were heard. Another story I broke was highlighting the system that immigrant mothers were meeting against the practice of family law and international parental child abduction law. The mothers felt relieved and also the stories raised awareness of what is happening behind closed doors in immigrant mothers’ lives. Now, from this, I am working with NGOs to collect evidence, facilitate dialogue for change, and lobby for policies to be changed.

When I founded The Oslo Desk, it was very much based on my own multidisciplinary approach to journalism work in order to create a new narrative and facilitate dialogues for social and systemic changes. My background in environmental geoscience, where I look at our Earth as a system, as well as studying different journalistic approaches like peace journalism and constructive journalism has shaped the way I look at recurring issues in our society and how to point accountability. So I hope I am bringing something new and perhaps much needed in a monopolised Norwegian media landscape.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

I ask myself that too! I feel that as I am getting older, my drive changes or added a new layer of meaning. So currently, the recent awards allowed me to keep going as my work is gaining recognition. The public nominated and voted for The Oslo Desk for the Blaze Inclusion Awards’ Spark category, and winning it meant that the public appreciated my work there. Prior, what drove me was witnessing the undignifying way that the media portrayed immigrants, and felt a need to do something about it and protect my daughter from the world that the media is creating.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

A childhood favourite book of mine, ‘Sasha and the Wolf Cub’ by Ann Jungman. I remembered discovering the book at the time when I was being bullied at school. I was so angry with the world. Randomly I saw this book during a book fair and was captivated by the cover of a boy wrapping a bandage onto a wolf cub. The whole story is about a boy who grew up with people teaching him how dangerous wolves are. Until one day, he was locked in a hut with a wolf cub who he befriended. They became good friends and the boy showed his father how humans and wolves can live alongside each other. I grew up with racism, and I wondered if the people who threw bricks through our windows, telling us to ‘Fxxk back to China’ or the boy who bullied me were told if we, as non-White, were dangerous. Is that why I was experiencing so much hate? I wondered if there was a ‘Sasha’ in the world and resonated with Ferdy, the wolf cub. It got me thinking if different ethnic groups of people can really truly coexist. I’m still wrestling with those thoughts today.

Ok wonderful. Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Mind your trauma — If you are like me covering pretty heavy and serious topics, check in with your mental health and personal trauma history. Give yourself the space to process and work through it so that you are mentally stronger when you get back into the work. Take another topic if you have to. Many of the interviewees I have spoken to were in vulnerable situations, so practice trauma-informed communication, and show compassion and respect for the interviewee.

Mind your privileges — Every journalist will write from their perspective even with the code of ethics and frameworks to work with to run a story, so be aware of your blind zones. Look into intersectionality. Check in with your privileges and your biased views. Stay on top of the conversations regarding racial justice, DEIB practices, intersectionality and gender issues. This creates credibility for your work in the multicultural society we live in.

Mind your friends — Once you become a journalist, you will end up at times breaking up with your friends because they crossed your boundaries as a journalist. Always stay critical, alert and look for the intention of your friend asking you to cover a story or ask you for a favour. It can be lonely at times.

Mind your wallet — Being a journalist doesn’t make you rich and if you end up freelancing, it can be difficult to get regular income. Take on a part-time job at a hotel or shop if you need to. You never know when you get laid off so have other skills and backup plans for other income revenue sources.

Mind your time — No one is ever going to care and value your time the way you do. Carve out the time you need for yourself, whether it is to read a book, relax etc. You don’t have to say yes to everything and lose out on life. Do spend time with family.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Make it mandatory for all politicians to learn about gender-based violence, family violence, intersectionality and trauma to bring systemic change.

After so many years of reading the news and writing reports, the issues we see are repeating the same thing over and over. We can write as many angles to the same issues, but the problem is still there. So why haven’t things radically changed? Haven’t we spoken about global warming for a decade? Hasn’t racism existed for hundreds of years? Hasn’t domestic violence too? Solutions that work are not used because there is no will from the people in power to make a difference.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Dr Gabor Mate and Jess Hill.

Dr Gabor Mate’s work on trauma has really opened up my eyes to my own trauma and was the missing piece of the puzzle I needed for my work and personal journey. His work saved my life at a time when I was contemplating taking my own life. He is someone I would like to discuss what he thinks about the future and what keeps him going despite working with this heavy topic.

Investigative journalist, Jess Hill’s book, ‘See what you made me do’ explores the devastating impact of domestic violence/family violence, and how the abusive partner uses family law and the courts to perpetuate abuse. I loved how her book, though horrifying to read, was grounded in academic studies, interviews with experts, and personal accounts of those who lived in the shadow of abuse. Since my work is also related to this topic, I would like to meet her to talk about her experience.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Personal

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/kamanmak/

Instagram @kamaninvestigates

Twitter @kamanjournalist

Facebook /kamanmm

The Oslo Desk :
LinkedIn : https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-oslo-desk

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theoslodesk
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theoslodesk/?hl=en

Twitter: @ OsloDesk

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Yitzi Weiner

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

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