MediaTips: Malika Bilal on The Stream, Wearing a Scarf, Live Tweeting, Fact Checking and Recognizing Biases

Malika Bilal is a co-host and digital producer for The Stream, a social media community with its own TV show on Al Jazeera English, an international state-funded 24-hour English-language TV channel owned and operated by Al Jazeera Media Network with headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Bilal hosts the show, which is produced in Washington, D.C., Monday through Thursdays . Interview and reporting by Jose Olivares for the Reynolds Sandbox.

Bilal’s main tasks involve engaging and communicating with the show’s audience regarding the conversation that’s happening on the program. She is in charge of monitoring the audience’s engagement, and asking guests any questions they may have. Since The Stream is also a live program focusing on complex international topics, Bilal needs to be quick and sharp. Photo shared with Reynolds Sandbox by Malika Bilal.

Q: How has The Stream which began in 2012 evolved since Trump’s election?

Malika Bilal: I think there has been a change but it’s probably not what the average person is thinking. The change is that people are really hungry for news and for an explanation for what they’re seeing. Already Trump’s presidency feels like so much longer. And things have been happening so rapid fire. Trump tweets, and it’s news. And he’ll tweet something else, and it’s completely different, but it’s news. Just keeping up with the pace of things that have gone on, things he’s been saying, executive orders he’s been signing, it’s gotten people in a tailspin. So there are lots of requests and pitches to us to cover different angles of what his administration has been doing. In the past, we didn’t see that as much. It’s an international show so we definitely try to focus on the specific country we’re focusing on. So one day we’ll do one U.S. show, and then go to Nigeria, and the next day may be Poland. But in this post-Trump era, we’ve focused a little more on U.S. stories than in the past just because there’s a hunger for it and there’s a hunger to understand what is going on.

Above a link to the website for The Stream, for which Bilal is a co-host.

Q: Did the closing of Al Jazeera America (the U.S.-specific cable channel of Al Jazeera was launched in 2013 but ended in 2016) affect your work?

Malika Bilal: Personally, no. What it has affected is a lack of understanding of audiences on what happened, and I still get people who know me and they know I work at Al Jazeera and they say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear about it. Do you still have your job? What happened?’ So there’s still a general confusion. And our job is to clear that up. We’re definitely sorry to have lost so many colleagues at our sister channel Al Jazeera America. But Al Jazeera English was the initial English-language channel based out of the U.S. and other places, and we’ve had our headquarters here. So we were here first and during Al Jazeera America. We’re back online and on television. Still, in the U.S. it’s a little difficult to find us but you can find us on AlJazeera.com and stream us there. But it has been a process explaining to people what happened and where they can find us.

Al Jazeera can be streamed live from the website above.

Q: What is your career trajectory? How did you get to where you are?

Malika Bilal: I went to journalism school at Northwestern [University], Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois. I was born and raised in Chicago, and I always knew I wanted to go there because I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t know what role in journalism I wanted, I thought I wanted to be in newspapers, so Medill was a really good fit. I graduated thinking I would get a job in newspapers and I couldn’t find any that I really liked, and mostly because I didn’t want to move to a small town. I was born and raised in Chicago, the last thing I wanted to do was move to a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. And that’s kind of how you have to have your start in newspapers, at least at that time.

Malika Bilal’s wikepedia page above.

From Medill to Voice of America to Al Jazeera

Malika Bilal: So I was searching for anything and everything else, and I found a fellowship at Voice of America, which is where I met [Reynolds School professor] Nico [Colombant]. It was a fellowship that turned into a job, but it was for broadcast writing. So I was writing the scripts that our radio presenters would read on the air. So that was my first stint in radio and I really loved it. I loved writing scripts. It was different than what I expected myself to do. I thought I would be out there reporting, so that took some getting used to. But I really honed in on how to be a good writer and how to sharpen your message, because you don’t have pictures — it’s radio. You only have your words. So that was a good education.

After Voice of America, I had a friend who worked at Al Jazeera English in Doha, [Qatar], the main headquarters. And he said ‘You would love it here, you should just apply.’ And I had already been eyeing the channel, I knew that’s kind of where I wanted to make my next move. So I applied, and I got it, and I got a job on the website. So I was doing reporting and editing on the Al Jazeera website. And a few years after that, the position opened up for presenting at The Stream. So they called in because I had filled in a couple times and I had an audition — and the rest is history.

On the set of her U.S.-based television program: “Wearing a scarf, on the other hand, that’s not something I often see. So that’s been interesting and I thought that would be something that kept me from being on television, for one, and, two, maybe getting interviews. But that was the view I had when I was younger. Fast forward to 2017, it hasn’t actually hindered me. I don’t get hate tweets about it. Occasionally someone will say ‘Take off that thing, why are you wearing it?’ But on the whole, people are really supportive and they know that it’s not about what I’m wearing but it’s about what I’m saying.” Photo shared by Malika Bilal.

Q: What is it like being a woman of color in journalism?

Malika Bilal: It’s actually funny, the show that I’m on now, the other host is also a woman of color, a Nigerian-British woman by the name of Femi Oke. So we are two black women who have a television show, a daily television show — that does not happen often… ever. It’s not something we actually noticed but a colleague at a journalism convention pointed it out and said it’s pretty amazing. And we spoke with each other and said, you know? It is. This is not why we got into the job, it’s a cool byproduct of where we are and it speaks to the diversity level of my current job, which is something I definitely appreciate. I’ve been kind of lucky because every job I’ve worked: Voice of America, Al Jazeera English, I also did a fellowship at NPR — I’ve always been surrounded by pretty diverse newsrooms and I think that’s allowed me to never think that I would be hindered, if that makes sense. Seeing that it was possible made me believe it was possible, so I’ve never had that blockage, that oh, that may be something I can’t do.

Bilal in the political trenches. On the question of politics and objectivity: “Personally, I don’t think that objectivity, as we know it, is really a thing. Or a thing we should even uphold or hold to. I think it’s more useful to realize and recognize that everyone has their own biases, and it’s recognizing we don’t let those biases get in the way of you telling all sides to a story.” Photo shared by Malika Bilal.

Q: Do you have any favorite stories or topics you have approached in your career?

Malika Bilal: The trouble is, because it’s a daily show and I’ve been doing it since 2012, as soon as a show is done, I completely forget about it, because we’re already on to the next show. Oh, but today’s show was great — it was about sanctuary cities. We actually spoke with a woman who is seeking refuge in a sanctuary church and she’s at risk of being deported and has all her family here. It’s those personal stories that always get to me.

Bilal has nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter.

Q: You are very successful on Twitter and have many followers. Do you have any Twitter or social media tips? I’m assuming it has to do a lot with the show…

Malika Bilal: It was mostly pre-the show. When everyone was realizing what Twitter was, especially in the U.S., it was around the time of the Arab Spring. Twitter was invented before that but the Arab Spring was when people were getting their news from Twitter because communication lines were cut and news was just unreliable — and people were looking at Al Jazeera at the time because their coverage was pretty reliable. So I was live-Tweeting and that really is the trick — so that’s my insider tip to getting more followers. If you’re at an event or you’re watching an event and deliver accurate, fast, reliable information, people will eat it up. The trick is it has to be accurate, because the last thing you want to do is live-tweet something and get your facts wrong.

A recent episode of The Stream on YouTube.

Q: What is your opinion on objectivity in journalism? Is that a thing?

Malika Bilal: I love this question, because it’s one we’ve been discussing in the newsroom, especially with the elections.

Personally, I don’t think that objectivity, as we know it, is really a thing. Or a thing we should even uphold or hold to. I think it’s more useful to realize and recognize that everyone has their own biases, and it’s recognizing we don’t let those biases get in the way of you telling all sides to a story. I think that’s really the trick, that it’s not always ‘Oh, you’re too close to the story, so you can’t tell this story.’ Sometimes when you’re close to the story, you know the ins and outs to the story and can get better access to it. But making sure, then, that the journalist is presenting the point and counterpoint — I think that is crucial. So I think that’s where the trouble is, it’s not about being objective or not.

I think sometimes, especially we’re seeing now, that objectivity does not mean, ‘he said, she said.’ Well, if what he said is false, it is your job as a journalist to inform the public of that. Don’t just put it out there and have a counterpoint. It’s our job to be the fact checkers. It’s our job to be the truth tellers.

Malika Bilal often engages with her audience as in the video above.

Q: Any tips for young journalists?

Malika Bilal: One of the suggestions I remember when I was growing up was: read, read, read, write, write, write. You can never get enough of it because it will help you. Reading, of course, will help expand your worldview and make you learn things you don’t know. And the writing, if you’re not a good writer, there is still hope for you — but it’s crucial. Just because you’re not going into magazines, blogging or a newspaper, doesn’t mean you don’t have to be a good writer. Good writing is behind everything you see.

Remember that the story is the story. If you become the story, that’s a different story. So focus on what’s important.

Interview and Reporting for the Reynolds Sandbox by Jose Olivares

Note: Some answers and questions were trimmed for clarity and conciseness.

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