GINA MEI (WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY SPECIAL)
In honor of World Press Freedom Day, I reached out to writer Gina Mei, Editor at Shondaland.com, to talk about her take on freedom of expression, the power of storytelling and current issues up in the journalism sphere. She shares her own love of reading, writing and dialoguing, her views on the influence of social media on today's media landscape, and covers the timely topic of freedom of speech in today's political climate. Thank you, Gina, for taking the time to offer such powerful insight.
What do you do as an Editor at Shondaland? Is there such thing as a “typical day” -- if so, what does that look like?
I do a little bit of everything — I write stories, I assign stories that I’d love to see, and I work with writers to shape their stories into the best possible pieces they can be. I also help with the overall voice and direction of the site. In other words, figuring out: What should we be focusing on right now? Who should we be celebrating? What should we all know about, and how can we help?
There is definitely no such thing as a typical day at Shondaland.com. We’re a small team — and every single one of us is part writer, part editor, part art director, and part social media expert. It’s hectic but fun, and I’m so proud of what we’ve created.
When did you know you wanted to become a journalist? What made you choose this career?
I’m not sure if I’d call myself a journalist at the moment, as Shondaland.com tends to be more focused on responding to the news (hopefully in a thoughtful, helpful way), as opposed to reporting it directly. But generally speaking, I became a writer because I had no choice. I’ve always written. I tried to be something else, and it was terrible. So I found my way back, and have been writing ever since.
How do you choose what topics and individuals you wish to bring light to through your writing and content on Shondaland?
It’s a mix of what and whom we find interesting and relatable and smart and emotional and funny and useful and informative. But above all, we love to shed light on great storytellers —the people who have a story to tell, that often only they can tell. We want to lift up voices and stories that don’t always get the attention they deserve. We want to be a space for the misfits and the outsiders to thrive.
In Last Cut Project, we speak to our individual definition of freedom. What does freedom mean to you? How does that relate to your writing and the press?
Freedom, to me, is the ability to exist as I am without having to hide parts of myself out of fear for my personal safety. My writing is a means of expressing my identity, of pushing these fears aside in an attempt to connect with others who might relate to my experiences, people who might feel the same as I do. It’s a way of being seen and seeing others. I think good journalism does the same.
Access to a free, unbiased, and accurate press is fundamental to an informed society. In this way, good journalism can move society forward, because an informed public can form educated opinions; and ideally, this would lead to progress. But without good journalism, it isn’t possible. Journalists are invaluable — and as far as professions go, few are as essential and under-appreciated.
What does freedom of speech mean to you? What do you think is the greatest threat to free speech right now?
Well, it certainly doesn’t help that we have an administration that does everything in its power to undermine the press every single day, and that has worked to establish a deep distrust in the media simply because they report on facts that paint the president in a less-than-favorable light.
But I digress.
Aside from the obvious, I think one of the greatest threats to freedom of speech is a fundamental misunderstanding of what that phrase means. Freedom of speech is the freedom to say what you want without persecution in a court of law — not the freedom to say whatever you want without facing any consequences whatsoever for what you’ve said, or without someone disagreeing with you or challenging your views or, in some cases, not wanting to have anything to do with you because what you said was racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, or bigoted in some other way.
To me, freedom of speech is the freedom to express my opinions and beliefs, even if they’re wrong; and the freedom for others to do the same; and the freedom for both of us to learn and unlearn as a result.
Many feel that reporting has become editorialized and overly partisan. What are your thoughts on that statement? Who do you think is at the forefront of offering impartial news?
This question is interesting in light of the current debate over whether comedian Michelle Wolf crossed a line with her joke about Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last weekend at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (For the record, I don’t think so — she did not once actually criticize the press secretary’s appearance. She merely questioned her credibility, while complimenting her eye makeup.) The response to this “incident” has largely been split across party lines, with a few notable exceptions; but I think the best coverage has been straightforward, and has instead focused on a different part of Wolf’s speech. (Ahem.)
But more generally speaking, it bears repeating that NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL. We are in unchartered territory — and it’s easy to forget that. What might appear to be “partisan” journalism isn’t partisan at all if what’s being reported is fact and just happens to make one side look bad.
Furthermore, I definitely don’t think all journalism has become editorialized and overly partisan. I do think a lot of editorialized, partisan stories tend to get more traction — because we currently exist in a very divided political climate, and there is comfort in finding like-minded perspectives. Add social media to the mix, and it’s inevitable that some of those stories are going to get the spotlight a lot of the time.
No source has been perfectly impartial — although many have made conscious efforts to try to appear impartial by “balancing things out.” I still turn to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker for journalism. I start my mornings with NPR’s “Up First” podcast, and end my days with Crooked Media’s “What a Day” newsletter.
I am a huge proponent of bringing light to topics we are often told to push under the rug, and I feel that Shondaland has been great about doing that as well. What are the top three things you think we need to be talking more about in order to push change?
Only three?! That’s tough. Among so many other things, I think we need to talk more about trans equality, rights for sex workers, and decriminalizing marijuana.
How has social media changed journalism? Do you see the readily-available nature of information a good or a bad thing in today’s society?
There are pros and cons. I think social media has made the news cycle move much quicker, and that can be a good thing and a bad thing. It’s easier than ever to stay informed, but also easier than ever to be overwhelmed. With the possibility of information spreading faster than ever, there’s also the possibility of misinformation spreading faster than ever, too. And as we’ve seen through investigations into the 2016 presidential election, sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish between the two.
Social media has changed journalism in the same way it’s changed pretty much everything else. It’s changed how we communicate, how we interact with the news, how we interact with people. It puts the power in the hands of people to decide what stories they value most, and this effects what gets reported on in a deeper way.
It’s also interesting to see social media pick up on stories much faster than traditional news outlets — most notably regarding stories about systemic racism/police violence against unarmed black people. And then there are stories that only exist because of social media, whether as a result of one of the president’s inflammatory tweets or otherwise. Social media gave voice and power to the survivors of the Parkland shooting, allowed the #MeToo movement to thrive, and has held countless public figures accountable for their words. Social media has completely changed how we digest and interact with news, and journalism has had to adapt.