This Moment of Reckoning
How editor and reporter Carmel Delshad became a journalist and her endeavor to bring more diversity into our news
By: Jessica Wang
“Things are changing—there are so many cool outlets that are coming up—so I think it’s a moment of tremendous change I’m so excited to see and witness.”- Carmel Delshad
On September 11th, 2001, two planes hijacked by the extremist group al Qaeda flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another plane collided against the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth crashed in a Pennsylvanian field. It was this pivotal event and its aftermath — one in which many people in a grieving America turned on anyone who looked Muslim or had brown skin — that helped light a spark in Carmel Delshad, now an editor and reporter at the WAMU.
“Frankly, growing up in Florida right around 9/11 and post-9/11 racism… It just really reminded me that I wanted to be a person who would be able to shine a light on my particular communities, and I wanted to be able to tell stories with nuance that I just was not seeing in the aftermath,” says Delshad, citing the attacks as a major impetus for eventually becoming a journalist.
Delshad’s journey to journalism wasn’t solely spurred by a single event, however. “I think [it also] boiled down to pre-med not working out,” she remarks.
Growing up in a small central Florida town in a low-income Arab Muslim family, Delshad knew from a young age that she wanted to become a doctor. “My mom was a doctor in Egypt, and I really wanted to follow in her footsteps ... my main goal was just to help people.”
With her aim in mind, Delshad landed a spot in an accelerated medical program that consisted of three years as an undergraduate followed directly by medical school. However, the experience proved unsatisfactory when she realized that her passion and life goals were absent from the program. “I had a real pre-quarter life crisis about ... what did I want to do in my life?” recounts Delshad. “I always thought I wanted to be a doctor, and now that that wasn’t really working out for me, where do I turn to?”
Drawing from her love of reading and writing as well as her motivation to change the narrative after the 9/11 crisis, Delshad decided to switch to journalism. Even after finding a field that excited her, however, there were still many obstacles to overcome.
“Being born in a low-income family, I already felt like the odds were stacked against me in a way. I had to rely on scholarships and my grades for college. I felt like everything was on me financially. And so many of my friends were doing internships every semester, and I couldn’t afford to do unpaid internships because I had to work. It was very, very frustrating,” Delshad says.
Aside from her financial disadvantage, Delshad had many professional challenges as well. After the Egyptian revolution of 2011, she decided to go to Egypt; despite being a positive experience, it earned her the label of “too international” from many news outlets when she tried to apply for jobs in public radio.
“I remember hearing from so many local radio stations, ‘You’re doing international news right now. Are you sure you want to move to Georgia?’” Delshad relates. “And I think that it’s a really insulting question because … you’re basically saying that my journalistic abilities and skills can’t be transferred to a local level. Those basic skills of interviewing, sourcing, writing, photography — those are transferable, in my opinion.”
The turning point came when Delshad was finally hired in a place near her hometown.
“The news director was like, ‘I love your international experience!’ And it just takes one person to be able to recognize that,” says Delshad.
Despite having received criticisms for her experience in foreign news, Delshad embraced her international role. Diversity was always a significant issue to her, and the fact that diversity received little attention encouraged Delshad to diversify her sources and embrace a wider perspective. She attributes that in part to the media portrayal of Muslims being so different from the reality. Growing up reading the newspaper had only contributed to her deep-rooted interest in international stories.
“There were such momentous things happening in the Middle East as I was coming of age,” she remarks. “And in grad school, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 — that was massive. I had been on the international track in my grad school, but we had to do a summer internship as part of the program, and I was looking to go to Egypt for that internship to bear witness to this momentous time in the country’s history, focusing on issues like women’s rights in the aftermath.”
In addition to reporting, she spent time training aspiring journalists in post-revolution Cairo, an experience she describes as “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” For six months, Delshad held weekly sessions with the young trainees with the goal of training citizen journalists to become professionals. The trainees completed tasks such as taking photos and writing captions, making videos, and shooting portraits. They were also paid for filing stories for the website.
“One of the coolest things that happened was… I remember one of the trainees saved up the money that he’d earned and bought a DSLR. And now, he’s in the States and still a photojournalist, which is amazing. It’s heartening to see how people have continued their careers. I am so glad to see people of the community covering those stories.”
Before joining WAMU in 2016, Delshad also worked as a fellowship manager for AJ+, an outlet of the Al Jazeera Media Network that focused on social videos initially aimed towards millennials. She later became a senior social producer for AJ+, during which she focused on audience engagement, social strategy, and digital storytelling. The mission of AJ+ — to shine a light on the powerless and focus on social justice issues — appealed to Delshad and her goal to bring more diversity into the media.
“Their M.O. was to be a voice for the voiceless, and there are so many stories that they do that I don’t see anywhere else, and that’s just the legacy of Al Jazeera. There’s so much information that you can glean from them.”
Even though Delshad now works at WAMU, a local radio station, she still strives to bring international issues into light by covering stories that are related to foreign events, such as the efforts of locals in assisting the crisis in Lebanon.
“Ultimately, especially in such a diverse region as here, our neighbors are international. We are doing them a disservice if we don’t bring them into the conversation and make them feel seen, heard, and reflected in our coverage. That’s why I’m so keen on still doing stories that feature those diverse voices,” says Delshad.
Having accomplished so much in the field of journalism, Delshad’s advice to aspiring journalists, especially ones from diverse backgrounds, is: “Really figure out what drives you. Be open to experimenting but if you feel in your gut that something isn’t right for you, don’t feel compelled that you have to do it. There’s more to life than being a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. We do need people in humanities and the arts.”
Delshad also advises to remember one’s passion and to persevere through difficulties. “When your competition is already twenty steps ahead of you, that makes it all the more hard. But I feel like being that driven in my teens and twenties… it certainly helped me get to where I am in my thirties.”
“I am really glad for this moment of not just racial reckoning, but the open-mindedness of so many communities of color realizing that they want increased representation. So if [journalism] is something you want to pursue, do some research, talk to folks. Things are changing—there are so many cool outlets that are coming up—so I think it’s a moment of tremendous change I’m so excited to see and witness.”