Emerging Leaders – Sabah Choudhry: Authenticity in Journalism

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In this episode, we speak to Sky News correspondent Sabah Choudhry about how the journalism industry is changing to allow for more authenticity and how being resilient and taking risks can lead to big rewards. Sabah is an award-winning multimedia journalist with experience in TV, radio, and digital mediums. As a young Sky News correspondent, Sabah reports on a range of national stories, as well as breaking news.

You can find out more about our work to help young people develop ethical leadership skills here.

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00:00 – 00:34

Munny Purba (MP)

What does it take to make a name for yourself in journalism? In this episode, Sabah Choudhry explores how the journalism industry is changing to allow for more authenticity and how being resilient and taking risks can lead to big rewards. Sabah is an award-winning multimedia journalist with experience in TV, radio and digital mediums. As a young Sky News correspondent, Sabah reports on a range of national stories, as well as breaking news.

00:34 – 00:58

MP

Thank you so much for being on the Emerging Leaders podcast, Sabah, it’s so lovely to have you here.

Sabah Choudhry (SC)

Thank you so much for having me, I’m excited.

MP

Of course. It’s been amazing to follow your journey and to see how you’ve kind of gone from strength to strength in your career. But I think it would be interesting to start right at the beginning and think about what was your motivation for getting involved in journalism?

00:58 – 01:18

SC

Sure. So I would say that I’m a very nosey, very curious person. You know, I like to know things to be in the know, to be the first to know. And that is basically news. You know, it’s speaking to people, shedding a light on important issues and doing so in a way that is accessible to wide ranging audiences.

01:18 – 01:38

SC

And also my undergraduate degree was in social anthropology at SOAS, which is basically all about understanding people, you know, what makes them tick. So it lends itself really well to what I do for a living, which is basically storytelling. And at Sky, you know, it’s always the way that we tell stories is by putting people at the heart of them.

01:38 – 02:01

SC

They’re always sort of like human-centred, human-focused because it gets boring when you just have endless statistics and this data and experts coming on like no one cares. It’s, you know, it’s the real people and their experiences that really sort of pull the heartstrings of viewers and audiences. So it’s yeah, I think it just comes back to sort of a natural curiosity with people.

02:01 – 02:32

MP

I think that me and you are probably very similar in that way. I’m just so nosy about everyone’s lives and gossip and things like that. So, I think that sounds super interesting.

SC

Some might call me a professional gossip.

MP

That’s a good title to put on your LinkedIn, but no. Yeah, I think you’re right. When things that people-centred personally anyway, I’m always a lot more interested in what’s going on and I think it makes it a bit more relevant to my life perhaps, and the interests that I have.

02:32 – 02:57

SC

Absolutely.

MP

Yeah. Cool. So of course you’ve got to where you are now and you know you’re doing really well, which is amazing. But I wonder if there were any barriers in you getting there and how you kind of overcame them and faced them.

SC

Yeah. So I would say the journalism, generally speaking, accessibility is a really big problem.

02:57 – 03:18

SC

That’s an expectation in the industry that you have to work for free for, you know, the first year or whatever in your career. And not everyone can afford to do that. And the industry is, you know, it has got a lot of people from middle class backgrounds whose parents can help fund a job where they’re not getting paid or, you know, the unpaid internship or whatever.

03:18 – 03:39

SC

And I think the problem is that because we’ve had this for so many years, we then, the entry point is for certain types of people entering the industry, and it’s quite limited and undiverse in many ways. For a long time, journalism has been considered a male, pale, stale industry. A lot of my peers, as I say, went to private school, something I didn’t do.

03:39 – 03:57

SC

So I found that, I mean, my peers, our life experiences can be very different, like imposter syndrome. It’s a very real thing. And for a long time I just sort of put my head down and sort of worked hard and thought, I’ll have a story that I’m working on and I’ll just get on with it. But now my approach is slightly different.

03:57 – 04:25

SC

I’m seeing, I’ve been working in media now for about eight years. I’m at a point where I feel like I know my worth, I know what I can bring to the table. You know, I’ve developed an extensive book of contacts over the years, so I know what it is that I can bring to Sky. I try and use my background and my life experiences to my advantage in terms of fostering relationships, building contacts, also language ability.

04:25 – 04:47

SC

I’m fluent in Urdu and Punjabi, so this is something that I have used with a lot of our sort of foreign news coverage and it has helped gain access and trust and that sort of thing with people that we’ve been talking to. So instead of shying away from my differences, I’ve sort of learned to embrace them. And I do think the tide is changing slowly.

04:47 – 05:21

SC

So I can only speak from a Sky perspective, where I am at the moment. They are making a concerted effort to have people from different backgrounds in terms of class, sexuality, race come into the newsroom just so we learn from people with different experiences and they’re opening all sorts of like apprenticeships and internships and they recently, I think last year, opened one for people that come from like foster care backgrounds, which, you know, eight years ago when I started off working in media, this this was unheard of, you know, it really was.

05:21 – 06:00

SC

So, yeah, I think that accessibility is a big issue that we are slowly but surely overcoming. So, yeah, I feel like that is probably the main thing. Sorry, I feel like I’m waffling.

MP

No, that’s amazing because I think it’s great that you’re talking about an industry now which is more open to change and you, you’ve even seen that in your kind of eight years of being in the industry that you see it going towards a maybe a more progressive, more inclusive, open industry, which is really probably quite a positive thing for us to talk to in terms of the young people that we’re constantly speaking to and, you know, that point of accessibility of

06:00 – 06:24

MP

that opening up as well. So really excited to see what’s to come. I think you’re probably testament to the fact that it is changing and perhaps some of your colleagues as well coming in to the industry. So that’s really cool. And you mentioned also there some of the quality that you bring, you know, the ability to build those contacts to be that personable person there that is open to having these conversations.

06:24 – 06:48

MP

And I suppose really well brings us to the next question, which is about you being a young leader in the field, what you think maybe are some of or maybe the key quality that you found to being or going towards that leadership and breaking barriers to that access.

SC

So I would say one of the key qualities of leadership is to just be persistent.

06:48 – 07:12

SC

I can’t tell you how many knock backs I’ve had, how many ignored emails, how many rejections. It’s, you know, on social media, we just celebrate our wins. We don’t put up the amount of times that we’ve not got a job that we’ve wanted. So I think people just see the highs of your careers, but actually they what they don’t see is the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes.

07:12 – 07:37

SC

And with me, I’ve been knocked down so many times and I have had to sort of force myself to show up every time. And it’s not easy and it’s something that really does wear and tear you down. But I do feel that in an industry like journalism, you need to be that way inclined because it just it’s so competitive that if you give up someone else will get the opportunity.

07:37 – 08:05

SC

And also news is subjective, so you have to be the one to insist and make a case for why you think something is a story. I think another quality of leadership is being resilient. I’ll give you an example. So I currently work as a correspondent at Sky, so I do a lot of the sort of TV reporting for UK news stories, and I’d been wanting to do this at Sky News like for years before I got the gig.

08:05 – 08:30

SC

And how I actually got it was so I think it was for maybe two years I kept pestering management and sending them emails and examples of stuff I’d done previously, you know, not at Sky, at other places, and just like begging them for an opportunity. Like I sent so many emails that I at one point thought that like a harassment order or something would have been taken out against me and they just kept getting ignored.

08:30 – 09:10

SC

And one day, well, I did was I thought, you know what, screw all you guys, I’m going to make you listen to me because I know that I can do this and do it well. I just need someone to give me a shot. So I went into to one of our studios. It was called Studio Six in the Sky Studios building, and I very sneakily borrowed the script and graphics of a technology correspondent who had just recorded something and had a few minutes while they were in a break to go in front of a green screen and just read from the autocue and like talk about COVID statistics and, you know, whatever.

09:10 – 09:35

SC

It was, I can’t even remember what it was I was discussing. But anyway, managed to persuade a director and runner and floor manager and all these people to set it up and record it. I had barely any time to do it, but I thought, I need them to see me doing proper, serious news and recorded it, got it in good quality, sent it to the big bosses and then that was the thing for them to think, okay, this girl has pushed us enough, she’s hounded us enough.

09:35 – 09:57

SC

She’s very serious. And actually this is the skill that we are looking for in our journalists here. And it was that that I think got me to where I am now. In fact, I know it is, you know, the thing that got them to listen. And they even said to me at the end like, we’re really glad that you did push despite us not being as responsive.

09:58 – 10:28

SC

And so far it’s worked out. And I’d say the last quality of leadership is being authentic, being true to yourself. And one example I can give in journalism is over the years there is this like standardized BBC English accent that everyone expects of newsreaders, and it’s just like so typical. But there is a shift. And now more and more people, it’s so great dropping their Ts and Ds and Ps and, you know, talking how they would with their friends.

10:28 – 10:55

SC

And that’s how you’re supposed to be as a journalist, you know. And being that way and being more yourself around people, I really do think helps build a rapport. It helps build trust with, with the people that you are out there interviewing, wanting to hear their stories. You know, if everyone sounded and spoke the same, you’re potentially alienating yourself from those whose stories maybe are not heard.

10:55 – 11:16

SC

So I’d say be true to yourself.

MP

Amazing. So it sounds like there’s a real mixture there. And I know you talked a bit there about the risk that you took, as well as the self-belief and the motivation. So those qualities are something that I think really are going to be key qualities that we speak to our young people about.

11:16 – 11:55

MP

I see them in you and I think they’re great assets for you and your career and you’re excited to see how even more authentic that you can be on screen. And I’ve seen it happening quite recently, so that’s really been lovely to see. Brilliant. So maybe now we can talk a bit about maybe some words of encouragement for young people and how you think they can be supported to be involved in becoming leaders in their fields or stepping out of their comfort zones to be maybe that change that you’re kind of describing there.

SC

My advice is seek out opportunities, be open to trying lots of different things.

11:55 – 12:17

SC

You know, you might have your heart and mind set on one thing that is that you want to do, but by exposing yourself to different types of people and jobs, industries, organizations, you might experience different ways of thinking and doing things and, you know, which might lead down a completely different path that you didn’t know potentially suited you.

12:17 – 12:44

SC

So I would say definitely be open minded. And I would also say that I definitely think you should have an online presence. In this day and age everyone should have an online presence, you know, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, these are all basically your online CVS. So many editors have said to me that every time they going for a job, applications, the first thing they do is to check how active you are online.

12:44 – 13:08

SC

You know, do you have your own blog? Do you, you know, have a YouTube channel? Do you post regularly on Twitter? How opinionated are you? Because you know, that could be a problem in objective journalism. But, you know, there are all these things that get checked. And one editor recently told me that when she was doing going for a hiring process, the thing that made someone not get the job was that she saw that they weren’t tweeting frequently.

13:09 – 13:31

SC

So for her, that was like, well, you’re not engaging with news and we are a news brand. And that was the deciding factor between that person and another person, which I thought was really interesting and kind of woke me up a bit and I was like, Whoa, I need to up my Twitter game here so that the things I would say, you know, be make you put yourself out there and use your initiative.

13:31 – 13:58

SC

Like if you want to know more about a certain role, what it’s like working for a particular company find those people on LinkedIn. Work out you know what the email address structure is for that organization and get in touch with them. You know, ask them out for coffee. And it’s that insight that they will be able to share with you that then you can then use that if a job opportunity was to come up at that particular place.

13:58 – 14:20

SC

It’s honestly through having conversations with people that you will structure and sort of contour your way of thinking to how editors think. And it’s once I started doing that and, you know, going out of my way to to meet with people, to have coffee, with people, to network with people, which I hate doing, by the way. I absolutely hate doing that sort of stuff.

14:20 – 14:44

SC

But it’s so important to push yourself out of your comfort zone and to do these things because you just don’t know, like what the advice that someone may impart to you could be the thing that gets you a job. So be open minded.

MP

So, open mindedness, having important conversations, building that network and all kind of key things perhaps in journalism, but also in lots of other industries.

14:44 – 15:06

MP

So I think they’re quite

SC

Transferable.

MP

Transferable, exactly. So that’s really interesting, I think really helpful. And I think that will be really useful for lots of our audience. So thank you so much for sharing, but now may be a bit about what you have got in store for the future and your plans, maybe your hopes. We’d love to hear it.

15:06 – 15:45

SC

I’m quite open minded and I would like to maybe do some more foreign news. My patch at the moment is UK news. A lot of what I do is sort of based in the South and I think I’m developing my skill set. I’m slowly becoming like a better script writer, a better producer, a better correspondent, doing what I’m doing where I am, but what I would love to do, like at some point in the future, is to sort of own my own patch, meaning that I am in charge of a particular locality and whenever a story will break in that area, it’s my job to go and investigate and, you know, to go to the

15:45 – 16:16

SC

scene of the crime or to go and meet the family of so-and-so and it becomes your area. And I would love to do that in a foreign country. But to get to that point, you do need to be quite senior. So I feel like there are still some years I need to kind of bide my time and build more experience and become a better journalist before I would feel comfortable and confident enough to be sort of let loose in the Wild West and work on my own patch.

16:16 – 16:35

SC

So I mean, that’s what I’m thinking at the moment, but that could very well change.

MP

Well, thank you for giving us that first insight into your hopes for the future. And we will be keeping an eye out for that. A really keen eye and fingers crossed for that to happen for you and I’m really excited to see what’s to come.

SC

Thank you

16:35 – 17:02

MP

Thank you so much for joining us and we look forward to catching up with you soon, hopefully.

SC

Aw, thank you for having me.

MP

Thanks for listening. You can find out more about the work we do at Cumberland Lodge with young people and beyond by visiting cumberlandlodge.ac.uk. You can also find us on social media @CumberlandLodge.