Farahnaz Mohammed’s journalism career has taken her from her home country of Jamaica to places like Argentina, Hong Kong, Germany and the U.S.
“I remember from a very early age realizing how much being in another country does for you,” she said. “It just changed my worldview so much.”
But getting started wasn’t easy. As she began to look for jobs, fellowships and freelance opportunities, she noticed a recurring theme: many of these opportunities were only available to U.S. or European citizens.
“You don’t see a lot of people who aren’t American or European in the papers,” she said. “That’s changing, and I think there are more opportunities now than ever, but it’s still pretty tough.”
Since getting her master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, her byline has appeared on sites like The Huffington Post, The Guardian, the Women's Media Center — and even IJNet. She now resides in London, where her most recent gig was at HackPack, a site that connects journalists, fixers and editors around the world.
Mohammed spoke with IJNet about the secrets to becoming a globe-trotting journalist:
IJNet: What made you first decide you want to be in journalism?
Mohammed: I always wanted to be in journalism, but I got told the same thing everyone did, which is it doesn’t make money. My parents were doctors, and I was headed to medical school — but while I was studying for exams, I started blogging for this place just for fun. I realized how much I hated medicine and how much I loved blogging. I sent an application to Northwestern’s journalism program and said if I get into this program with as little experience as I have, that is a message from the universe to do journalism. I got in and did not go to medical school — I don’t know how my parents feel about that.
Last year you were selected for the Knight-Vice Innovators Fund, which you found through IJNet’s opportunities section. How else has IJNet helped your career?
IJNet was one of the first places that was so well-organized and so accessible and you didn’t need to pay anything for it. They recognized that international journalists do have a much harder time out there. I remember reading it even before I went into the profession, and it was so encouraging. Especially seeing people like me — people who didn’t have an American or European passport — being able to make it.
I remember going onto the opportunities page every single day for years and applying for things, and the Knight-Vice fellowship was one of them. I never expected to get it, and I’m amazed I did. And that was IJNet. You can say so many things launched your career, but that was a huge step up.
How do you come up with story ideas when you’re freelancing?
I think a skill you have to learn is to keep your eyes open. For example, the last story I was working on [about how women react to trauma] came from something a friend said in passing. I started looking into it, and the more women I talked to who were not on the record were really desperate to talk about it in general.
It’s was just keeping your eyes open, whether it's something a friend says or seeing something someone does. I did one about suicide in Guyana. I came up with that story when I was working on another project about health in the Caribbean. I saw one statistic and I was like, “That’s remarkable, I should write about that.”
A lot of people say lock yourself in a room and just think of them, and I’ve never been able to get that to work.
Do you have advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
Honestly, I think in the beginning — and this is something I would tell myself too — it’s your own self-confidence that is the biggest enemy. It’s that you’re sitting there being like, “They’ll never be interested in what I have to say, I’ll never get this” — you say that to yourself a lot, especially as someone international.
I’ve always been surprised by how, if you sell yourself with confidence — of course you’re going to get rejections, because everyone gets rejections — but editors really do want to hear really well-told, interesting stories. So if you have one, pitch it to The Guardian first and then to the smaller outlet after.
I would say apart from confidence, you’re going to have to have more grit. It’s already an industry you have to have a lot of grit in. It’s just really being able to build yourself up. At the same time, accept criticism; you can always get better. I know a couple of journalists who get edits back, and edits back are always brutal — I mean, it’s your baby — but they hold it afterwards because they think it doesn’t look anything like what they wrote. There’s a lot of times it’s not going to look like what you wrote.
Main image courtesy of Farahnaz Mohammed.