Inspirational Woman Interview: Jihii Jolly

Jihii Jolly is community editor of the Women & Girls Hub at News Deeply. A multimedia journalist with a varied background in production and research, she specializes in media, culture and religion, she has written and produced content for the Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Atlantic and Narratively, among others. She was previously an Innovation Fellow at EdLab Studios, a research, media design lab at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to producing her own work, she’s taught pre-college journalism at the School of the New York Times. Currently, she teaches community engagement at Stony Brook University’s Journalism School. She’s originally from India, and grew up in New York.

Can you tell us about some of your journalism experiences?

Jihii Jolly: I studied at Soka University of America, which is a tiny, liberal arts school founded on the Buddhist principles of global citizenship and peace based on respecting the sanctity of life. While I knew I wanted to pursue journalism, it was really this education, and my practice of SGI Nichiren Buddhism, that helped me start asking questions about the purpose of journalism. In one of my favorite books, called Discussions on Youth, by our university founder, Daisaku Ikeda, he explains, “If universities produce people who look down on those who couldn’t attend college, what good is it? In one sense, college exists precisely for those who cannot attend it. Those who are privileged to attend a university should spend their lives working for the sake of those who couldn’t enjoy the privilege.”

I give that background, because it was this journey that led me to want to pursue work at the intersection of journalism and education. Much of my work centers on the questions: Why and how should we consume the news healthily? How can we use information to better our lives and ability to develop imaginative empathy? To that end, I’ve done stories across mediums on news literacy (I was the Columbia Journalism Review’s news literacy reporter in 2014) and education (I worked for a few years as a producer on a documentary unit at Teachers College, exploring unconventional design and learning experiences).

Currently, I’m a Community Editor at News Deeply, a fantastic, innovative news company started by Lara Setrakian, which builds single-subject information hubs around the world’s most important issues, and I work to build communities around that work, particularly focused on issues affecting women and girls in the developing world.

You also help coordinate events for Her Girl Friday, a community of female journalists and nonfiction writers. Can you tell us more about Her Girl Friday and some events you have organized?

Jihii Jolly: Her Girl Friday is a group of awesome ladies who work across mediums — print, online, photo, radio, film. We produce a few events a year with good vibes and real takeaways for (and featuring) female-identified journalists in journalism and nonfiction storytelling. Our events focus on highlighting projects, encouraging collaboration, and helping journalists to expand their toolkits. For example, how to pitch stories, how to manage your time and budget, how to edit Wikipedia, how to make an impact-focused documentary, or how to build an innovative digital storytelling venture. Really, it’s just a way for women to connect and collaborate in a low-key, real setting, and I’ve met so many wonderful people through it.

Can you share the inspiration behind your research project on news in the 21st century? What has the research process been like?

Jihii Jolly: So I’m currently doing research for a book, which explores the question: how should young people read the news? This is the question I’ve struggled with my entire life, and the reason I went into journalism in the first place. Too often, in high school and college, I’d read the paper, or watch the news, or find articles online, and while I was gaining “information”, I’d feel totally disconnected from the people I was reading about, and felt really disempowered to thoroughly understand issues well enough to meaningfully dialogue about them, much less act on them. So a lot of my work, in the form of reporting, formal and informal interviews with people of all ages on what their news habits and what they struggle with, lessons, and experiments, has been to figure out if other people feel the way I do and what we can do about it.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges unique to journalism on international development issues?

Jihii Jolly: If I had to pick just one that’s really overlooked, it would be news literacy. People simply do not know how to consume the news in a digital world. Aside from obvious issues, like misinformation and online hoaxes that we fall for too easily because we’re reading the news through our social networks and we’re not in the habit of checking sources, there is the issue of finding sources that are not only reliable, but engaging, challenging, understandable and thoughtful, according to your personal learning style and time needs. My favorite metaphor for it is the food metaphor. We’ve gotten nutrition down to a science when it comes to what to eat, when to eat it, and how to nourish our bodies so that we are energetic and healthy, but we have no idea how to do the same with information, and don’t take into account the fact that passively consuming media at all times can really affect our well-being. So I’m interested in the challenge of figuring out how to get great journalism in the hands of people at the right time, in the right format, for the sake of literacy, learning, and community engagement.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Jihii Jolly: There are so many! It would be so hard to choose just one. Professionally, I really respect the work of so many journalists and researchers, like danah boyd, who has done some amazing research on teenagers and media, and I think not enough people in our world focus on teenagers. My boss, and the founder of News Deeply, Lara Setrakian, is amazing: a warm, thoughtful leader, and a fearless entrepreneur. The first female journalist I was ever inspired by is Xinran and her book, The Good Women of China, is one of the reasons I fell in love with journalism. And in my daily life, I’m blessed to be surrounded by a really incredible community of women in my Buddhist organization, who are applying the principles of Buddhism to their daily lives and respective fields in such an inspiring way. They really keep me going.

What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

Jihii Jolly: Talk to a lot of people. Take a lot of notes. Remix the news (format, not facts). If you read/see/hear something, what could it look and feel like in another format, for a specific audience? Practice that skill. Read a lot! Build up source networks. It’s never too early to reach out to strangers who do things you want to learn more about and interview them. Study civic engagement. Study foreign policy. Or at least read good books about them and go to events and conferences if you can. Report on what you care most about. Don’t worry too much about publishing, just start reporting and you’ll find a home for the work. And perhaps most often forgotten: think about the audience you want to serve, rather than the job you want to have.

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