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Shireen Ahmed on diversity and inclusion in journalism

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Shireen Ahmed is an Ontario-based, multi-platform sports journalist. 

She is a co-creator of Burn It All Down, a feminist sports podcast that critically analyzes sports culture. 

Ahmed is a frequent contributor to The Sports Network (TSN). She’s also had work featured in Sports Illustrated, Teen Vogue, Vice Sports and The National Post.

She is known for being an activist within the sports industry. Ahmed focuses on Muslim women and the presence of both racism and misogyny in sports.

Ahmed is also a diversity and inclusion consultant and stresses its importance within journalism.  

Burn It All Down podcast team. From left to right: Brenda Elsey, Jessica Luther, Shireen Ahmed, Lindsay Gibbs and Amira Rose Davis / Photo by Michael T Davis

Melanie Lennon: What does ‘diversity and inclusion’ mean to you?

Shireen Ahmed: For me, diversity and inclusion are not just approaches. They’re practical ways to implement anti-oppression into workspaces and sports spaces.

I work in sports. I’m a sports journalist. I believe strongly we can take the sports space and [use it as] a connector, as a vehicle to educate. 

Sometimes I think that diversity and inclusion are soft. What we really need to be talking about is combating anti-racism and anti-Blackness. You need to talk about transphobia and homophobia and misogyny very specifically. 

ML: What has your experience with diversity and inclusion been like in sports journalism?

SA: I have a critical lens, and a lot of people don’t like that. Have I always been included in spaces? No. I think being relentless, being a racialized woman, that has helped. I say what I need to say in the way I feel is best communicated. 

There are obviously some networks and some outlets that are more interested in what I have to say. They give me a platform. 

Part of my journey has been creating my own platform. That’s why working on an independent project like Burn It All Down has been so essential. We are basically talking about things from years ago that are only starting to hit mainstream sports media now. We’re a team of three journalists and two academics. I think it’s really important that we created our own space. Not anybody was going to give it to us.  

Diversity and inclusion have been good to me, but also because I’ve had to do it myself. I’ve had to insert myself, and I don’t mind doing that.

Photo of Shireen Ahmed / Photo by Noor Al Mosawi

ML: What tips would you give other journalists when it comes to writing about diversity and inclusion? 

SA: I think one of the biggest things is to start listening. If there’s a story about [the] LGBTQ2S+ community, I will try to defer it to somebody who’s from that community. I’m a strong believer in that. I think that people from different communities, marginalized communities, tell their stories best. 

You can’t expect to be completely surrounded by white people, and then dive into a topic as complex as race. I think it’s very tricky, and it can add to toxicity if it’s not done well. 

The best thing for a journalist to do is to listen. Our jobs are essentially to observe and report thoroughly and accurately. Where you’re getting your information from also matters. 

I think that’s advice I would want to pass on to other journalists because it’s something I believe in. Always listen, always try to learn and unlearn. Think about the language you’re using. Think about who your audience is. 

What I’d say specifically to women journalists is to surround yourself with a community. You’ll need it in this industry. There’s not a lot of us. 

ML: Do you think Canada’s journalism industry covers enough diversity and inclusion within its work?

SA: No, absolutely not. The journalism industry in Canada as a whole is predominantly white and rich and male. That’s who runs Canadian media and whose commentary and columns are the most amplified.

But we’re not beholden to newspapers anymore. Podcasts, video journalism and photojournalism [are] all very important things. A lot of marginalized community folks are getting more involved in [those platforms] and social media is certainly helping. 

Canada is very, very bad at interacting with communities we’re not a part of. We look at the United States and can critique them forever. The conversations we have [in Canada] are far bolder, and that’s what’s necessary here. That’s what we’re lacking.

ML: How does the lack of diversity within the journalism industry affect people in Canada?

SA: It does a massive disservice. Journalism is supposed to report and reflect on communities and issues within the country. It’s not only supposed to report on white men in the country.  

The system needs to be shaken up a little bit. It’s one thing to have an anchor who’s racialized, but who’s actually making editorial decisions? Who’s making managerial decisions? Let’s look at that structure. 

Canadians are a lot smarter than journalists generally give them credit for. I think there’s this sense of “Well, we’re not ready to have somebody who’s Black leading a national show.” Yes, we are. We’re definitely ready for that, and it’s necessary. 

The dial is moving slowly, because not everything can happen all at once. 

The way stories are being told is important because who tells the stories is as important as the stories themselves. They’re not things and entities that can be separated.

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