How Diversity Impacts Storytelling: An All-Female News Team Tells All

When Contrast — Al Jazeera’s immersive media arm — launched in 2017, the mission was simple: use immersive technology to connect viewers to the underrepresented, misrepresented communities hit hardest by inequality and conflict . Nearly two years later, the team has come to represent more: the immense potential in having a diverse news team.

“I don’t think you can cover minority communities without having those people represented on your team,” says Zahra Rasool, Contrast’s editorial lead. “From the beginning, I knew that if we were going to do these stories, that we had to have people on the team that came from different parts of the world, or with a different world view.”

Made up of women with all uniquely different backgrounds — a Palestinian, Lithuanian, Brazilian, Indian, Somali-Canadian, and Korean-American — Contrast is the only all-female news team specializing in immersive technology. In a global media environment that tends to support the white and male worldview, and working with an immersive medium such as VR that has the power to take you into experiences, the team’s international backgrounds plays a crucial role in shaping and informing content.

With the team’s diversity in skills and experiences leading the way, Contrast has covered it all: from the war in Yemen, to the women breaking into the moto-taxi driving industry in Rwanda, to Gaza’s amputee football team and the efforts of Rio de Janeiro’s locals in fighting food waste.

Not trusting mainstream media to tell their story accurately or fairly, many young people and people of color are bypassing mainstream Western media — in favour of YouTube, social media, and podcasting, to name a few — to raise awareness of important issues affecting their communities, and to tell stories on their own terms. This is why a singular theme and philosophy has emerged in the kind of storytelling that we do at Contrast: we see a real value in giving agency back to the communities we film, one that allows these communities to directly influence the narrative surrounding their identity.

“One of our core philosophies is based on the acknowledgement that local communities know their issues best,” explains Joi Lee, one of Contrast’s producers. “When those impacted by the issue are at the forefront of shaping the narrative, the stories become more informed and nuanced to reflect the realities on the ground.”

In less than two years, Contrast has trained more than 100 local journalists and filmmakers — many from developing countries and conflict zones — and in doing so, has created a global freelance network of VR storytellers who are empowered to tell their own stories using 360 video.

Contrast also represents how diversity often begets diversity, which can only occur when diversity and inclusion is prioritized at the management level. According to the American Society of News Editors (2018), American newsrooms with female leadership tend to have more women on staff. Coming from a developing country herself and being Muslim and a person of colour in the US, Zahra saw real value in storytelling that was authentic and conscious. However, she understood that she would have to operate outside of the usual networks in order to build a diverse team of talented journalists and storytellers.

Elia Ghorbiah, for example, is a Palestinian journalist who joined the team after participating in Contrast’s first edition of the My People, Our Stories series, where local journalists are trained and equipped with 360 cameras to cover the issues most important to their community.

“Media coverage of ongoing political issues throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, often overlook the human and personal stories of those who are impacted by the news,” explains Elia. “We’re hoping to share the inspiring stories of people who are fighting to improve their lives, and ultimately help elevate the perspectives of the human faces behind the statistics.”

Eight months after Elia joined the team, some of Contrast’s most watched content comes from the Arab world. Contrast has also launched an Arabic blog and website, and translated many of Contrast’s premium documentaries into Arabic.

“Whenever I hear [from other journalists] that it’s difficult to hire a diverse team, my response is that I don’t buy it,” says Zahra. “I had no issues recruiting a diverse team or finding collaborators from the communities we are filming. The burden is on us to make sure we reach out to those people. Because skills can be taught, but someone’s experience cannot be transferred. And that experience becomes invaluable when covering stories from angles that are often missed or forgotten.”

When the October 2018 Brazilian presidential election was approaching, Maria Lauret — Contrast’s VR Editor, who hails from Carangola, Brazil — knew the team had to cover it. What stories could be told to add to the conversation already happening regarding the elections, both inside and outside of Brazil? These questions gave rise to the My People, Our Stories: Brazil series, in collaboration with Under the Skin VR, which took viewers into Rio de Janeiro’s slums, or favelas; armed with 360 cameras, ten young Brazilian filmmakers covered the most pressing issues at the forefront of the 2018 elections from the perspective of those living in the city’s most impoverished areas.

“People were paying special attention to the news because of the elections,” Maria says. “We wanted to make sure people understood what was going on in the city’s most densely populated areas, from the perspective of people who actually live there.” Some of the hot-button topics covered were black representation in politics, freedom of religious minorities and the rise in homelessness in Rio.

Having a team made up of people from different backgrounds has been key to determining the diversity of stories we cover. But, how does the fact that Contrast is an all-female team affect the work we do, especially considering the team works and exists between two male-dominated spheres: journalism and virtual reality?

“I think as a woman, we all find ourselves having to make decisions while being conscious of the fact that we are living in a male-dominated world,” explains Viktorija Mickute, a producer on the team. “There are so many inspiring women around the world who find the ways to overcome challenges, to become role models to better their communities, and eventually society as a whole. You can see that in the stories that we cover.”

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As a women strong team, we’ve also found value in our support system. In many industries and fields, women are a long ways away from achieving equality, facing challenges from societal, economic or political fronts. The tech world is no exception: women face an uphill and continuous battle as they enter the workforce, stemming from a hostile work environments, lack of mentorship, unequal pay and various other challenges. Though mentorship is incredibly important for career growth and development, studies have shown that women have a more difficult time finding mentors than men.

“Being able to work closely with women who are interested in doing the kind of work I’m interested in, who have different skill sets to contribute and who you feel comfortable learning from… that’s the best part about having an all-female team,” explains Aala Abdullahi, the team’s associate producer. “I’m very conscious of whether I’m comfortable asking for help and mentorship, and working with a team that is made up of women definitely lowers the stress that comes with that.”


GET TO KNOW THE CONTRAST TEAM

Zahra Rasool, Indian

Editorial Lead

Before joining Al Jazeera’s Innovation Team, she was the Managing Editor of HuffPost RYOT where she was responsible for RYOT’s editorial strategy, managing the content team and combining journalistic storytelling with VR and 360-degree technology and in 2015, she founded her own start-up Gistory. Her background is in documentary filmmaking and she is very passionate about new emerging platforms and immersive storytelling in shaping the future of the media.

Viktorija Mickute, Lithuanian

Producer

Before joining Contrast, she hosted a social media live TV show at Lithuanian National Television. A recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, she has extensive experience as an international news editor and reporter, covering many international events and crises such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, climate change in Morocco, and mental health in South Sudan. With a background in documentary filmmaking, she is driven by new visual technologies and innovative ways of storytelling they enable.

Joi Lee, Korean-American

Producer

Before joining Al Jazeera’s Innovation Team, she was a producer at HuffPost RYOT, where she was part of the founding team working to bring together the newsrooms of HuffPost and RYOT. There, she directed a citizen journalism training program that distributed mobile phones/360º cameras to journalists worldwide, as well as produced over 60 short 360 films, covering issues like the Nigeria food security crisis, Syrian refugee crisis, Olympics in Rio and more.

Maria Fernanda Lauret, Brazilian

VR Editor

She is a storyteller and everything it entails: an editor, camera woman and a creative thinker behind immersive VR documentaries and 360° social videos. Before joining Contrast, she worked on 360 and short news videos, viewed by millions, at Huffpost RYOT in Los Angeles. Throughout her professional experience, Maria collaborated with other huge organisations, such as Samsung, Google and Hulu.

Elia Ghorbiah, Palestinian

Producer

Before joining Contrast, she was a freelance producer and video journalist based in Palestine. She produced many feature stories, reports and short films that were published on AJ+ (Arabic and English), Aljazeera English, BBC Arabic, Middle East Eye, Zoomin TV and others. Elia was a participant in the first edition of Contrast’s “My People Our Stories” in 2017, and that was her first introduction to 360 storytelling. One year later, she joined the Contrast team.

Aala Abdullahi, Somali-Canadian

Associate Producer

With an honours degree in Neuroscience, Aala is a mental health policy advisor turned multimedia journalist. She was chosen as a 2017 Global Journalism fellow at the University of Toronto, brought on to work directly with Canadian and international media partners to better report on neuroscience and mental health. She has also written a children’s book series on mental illness awareness, with the series being nominated for an Alberta Literary Award. Prior to joining Contrast, Aala worked on a local radio show based in Edmonton, Alberta.


Former Team Members

Left: Maryam Kazeem (Nigerian-American), PRODUCER. Right: Sebastien Billard (French-Colombian), OPERATIONAL COORDINATOR.

You can check out our work at contrastvr.com