Zainab Bala is a Nigerian journalist with focused on broadcasting and multimedia. She is the 2021 winner of the International Centre for journalist Michael Elliot Award for Excellence in African storytelling, a Wole Soyinka investigative journalism award recipient and a member of the Queen Elizabeth Common Wealth Trust. We spoke to Bala about her career as a journalist and her storytelling initiative that focuses on human interest stories with the aim of engaging with the audience and influencing public opinion to have a healthy democracy and a thriving community.
1. Journalism is an interesting and complex industry, how have you navigated this field over the years?
When I was a young child watching television, I thought that journalism only consisted of news anchors who were well-spoken and well-groomed. I began to take an interest in studying journalism after realising that my preconceived notions about the field were completely false. I discovered that public interest was more important than the attention and visibility that come with the job. I saw that I was reporting more on people and the problems that touch them as time went on. The opportunity to participate in other people’s lives through their stories opened my eyes to a wide range of endeavours. The field of journalism is intriguing and difficult. It is fascinating because it gives the journalist exposure to a wide range of human behaviour. Additionally, if you cover investigative stories, it could even be fatal. A challenge that develops over time is the issue of mental health. I think what has kept me going is passion. Despite some of the challenges of the job, I always keep in mind that it is satisfying just to be able to help my community. I encourage myself to continue acting as the watchdog.
2. Nigeria has a competitive news and media industry, how do you stay relevant or find those stories that will be of interest to the public?
Indeed, there is competition in the Nigerian media market. The medium-term potential for growth and development in the sector remains considerable, and it has historically had a vast and diverse media environment. Nevertheless, despite the competition, my ability to carve a niche in storytelling has kept me relevant. I came to understand that raising awareness of social issues and finding solutions for those who are underrepresented never gets old. People always have a narrative to share about their struggles and use these accounts to keep the government accountable.
3. What has been a career-defining moment for you?
For me, winning the 2021 International Centre for Journalists Micheal Elliot Award for Excellence in African Storytelling for my documentary The Almajiri was the pinnacle of my career. The documentary exposed child neglect and abuse by parents and religious leaders. This award taught me the value of the work we do as journalists. Winning this award has also improved my chances of obtaining grants and other important opportunities. Regarding inclusivity, I believe we are moving in the right direction since I see more women making significant progress in the field. However, we still have a long way to go, especially in Africa. A diverse newsroom is critical for media organisations that take pride in producing well-researched, complex stories that explore various perspectives and voices. The media’s news content should be an accurate reflection of the diverse society it serves. As a result, in order to accurately reflect this society, we must ensure that journalists of various cultures, religions, and genders are represented. It’s not just about offering different perspectives and points of view. Media organisations must ensure that their newsroom culture reflects the diverse news content they produce, or audiences may question their credibility.
4. You founded the Scoop Storytelling Initiative, can you talk more about it and the work you do?
With an emphasis on the experiences of regular people, the Scoop Storytelling Initiative, formerly known as the Scoop with Zainab, debuted as a TV programme in 2019. Known in journalism as “human interest stories,” I travel to communities and let the locals speak openly to me about their challenges and experiences. These stories are then broadcast on TV so that those with the power to affect change can see their point of view, start fresh discussions, improve the quality of life in communities, and strengthen democracies. Because I couldn’t adequately fund it, I decided to make it a digital media in 2020. I was able to publish content on social media thanks to the assistance of volunteers and contributors. For my work on the Scoop, I was chosen by the US Department of State for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in the United States in 2022. It was fully incorporated as a non-profit storytelling media project in 2022, where we publish multimedia and text pieces, mentor and train young journalists, especially women, and host community engagement outreaches.
5. Your platform focuses on amplifying the voices of marginalised communities seeking to make their stories seen and heard, how do you support these communities through your initiative?
For a girl named Aisha who has a disability, the team and the Maggie Cares Foundation in 2020 was able to secure a basic school scholarship. Due to her lack of mobility and her family’s financial situation, she was able to attend school. Her narrative paved the way for assistance, and we set out on a mission to keep sharing these tales in order to provide comfort to these people. The Scoop Storytelling Initiative has so far trained more than 200 journalists, both male and female, published more than 30 noteworthy multimedia pieces, secured more than ten scholarships for kids with disabilities with the aid of non-governmental organisations, and formed more than ten partnerships with other organisations that share our values. We learned from Aisha’s narrative that giving social issues a human face helps people relate to them better. The example of Aisha’s narrative shows how human-interest stories can inspire social change.
6. Over the years, your work has been celebrated by notable media organisations, as a journalist how does it feel for your work to be celebrated and honoured?
It is an honour for me to have accomplished so much at my age. In October 2022, I turned 29 years old. This has taught me that anything is possible with hard work and perseverance, but not at the expense of passion. It motivates me to do better. It’s especially difficult for a young Muslim African female. Another thing I noticed is the evolution of media. The landscape of media innovation is changing, and you don’t have to work for a mainstream media outlet to be a journalist. There are thousands of opportunities out there for you to pursue, which gives me great hope for the future of journalism. Journalism will always be relevant, which makes me very happy.
7. In terms of your career, what are your plans or what are the goals you want to achieve?
Right now, I’d say my plans are in place. The Scoop is my idea, and I am pleased that I have made progress. In the coming years, I intend to expand the Scoop into a hub where aspiring journalists can learn the craft, as well as continue engaging the community and creating a safe space for democracy to thrive.
8. What advice would you give to upcoming journalists in Nigeria?
My advice to aspiring journalists in Nigeria is to start somewhere. Simply begin. Volunteering is an excellent place to begin. Many people believe that there is no money in journalism. True, but I’m sure if you do it for the community, the rewards multiply. Money should not be your primary concern. Another thing you can do is ask questions. Don’t be afraid to approach someone. There are countless people who will gladly support you, whether on LinkedIn or Instagram. Demonstrate your desire for this.
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