Journalist Sabrina Siddiqui: “Everyone Is Moving Real Fast” — FannBoy Friday

"It's important to keep holding government officials accountable, even if they're not giving you much or they're just reverting to talking points. You are questioning them before the public, on behalf of the public, in the interest of transparency and accountability."

Journalist Sabrina Siddiqui: “Everyone Is Moving Real Fast” — FannBoy Friday
White House reporter Sabrina Siddiqui sits down with Fann to discuss admirable Muslim journalists, the chaos of covering the Trump presidency and the ways technology has changed the journalism industry.

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

Sabrina Siddiqui is a White House reporter at the Wall Street Journal, where she covers the Biden presidency. Siddiqui previously covered national politics at The Guardian, HuffPost and Bloomberg News. She has covered both the Trump and Obama administrations, as well as the 2012, 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Siddiqui has regularly appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CBS and PBS Washington Week. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2008 and lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and their daughter.

It turns out that Siddiqui is not only a #goals-level journalist, but super close with my younger sister and married to a close family friend of ours. I was very fortunate to be able to get this interview fairly easily, considering how busy she is.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Shahjehan: What is a major story that you've been following this year?

Sabrina: I've been following so many major stories, mostly focused on the White House and President Biden. The one that probably has been more of a focus [for me] is the very real possibility that this next presidential election is going to be a rematch between President Biden and former President Trump, which is obviously not only unusual, but also, the emotions that it's elicited from a lot of people I talk to are very different from the many other elections I've covered. I really do wonder what that's going to mean in terms of voter participation and general interest in the election. 

I think the other big one was President Biden's trip to Ukraine. I had been covering the Biden administration's response to the war in Ukraine for some time [when] I ended up being one of two journalists with the president on the secret trip to Kiev. And it was a big opportunity — a really big responsibility for me — but also has caused me to pay much more attention to the war in Ukraine as it enters its second year and most of the world is starting to tune out.

Shahjehan: What’s a story that’s a little less well-known that has caught your interest?

Sabrina: I have been doing more coverage of AI technology, which a lot of people are paying attention to. I think that what is less known are all of the many ways in which [AI is] impacting day-to-day society. Right now, a lot of the conversation has been similar to what we saw with social media companies when Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and TikTok became popular and widely used platforms. It’s more around regulations with respect to some of those companies reining in misinformation, but also protecting free speech and the intersection between social media and politics.

What's interesting with AI is some of the storylines that I'm looking at: should students be allowed to use AI in schools? Who's going to set that policy? Anything around schools is always so controversial. And, [where] there were some universities that had an outright ban on the use of AI by students, [many] are moving away from that because there is a big push by companies with a stake in AI [who] lobby on their behalf; to liken it to a calculator and say, ‘students use calculators,’ why wouldn't we let them use this technology that's now available at their disposal for writing, for researching and all other types of things?

President Biden has [even] interacted with AI by having AI paint artistic renderings of his dog, [which is] exactly what you think an 80-year-old would have done with it. But inside the Oval Office, this is something that they're constantly talking about — thinking about — and it affects everything from productivity to job losses, to elections and misinformation, to even just how we do our day-to-day jobs.

Shahjehan: What do you remember from publishing your first story or your first big byline? What was that like?

Sabrina: I used to be the editor in chief of an online South Asian lifestyle magazine “Divanee” — the play on the words “diva” and the Hindi word “diivaanii” [editor’s note: which means crazy or passionate] — before a lot of these diasporic-oriented South Asian outlets, and we were the main go to for entertainment, political or business/tech coverage concerning India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the South Asian diaspora. And so that was a whole responsibility that I felt based on my own background, to deliver that kind of information to a niche audience. 

But what I count as my first bylines were when I started covering the 2012 election for the Huffington Post. I had a lot of bylines that were day-to-day election coverage, and it seemed like a really big deal. I think it is important now that I've been working in this industry for a long time to sometimes think about how big of a deal it was to see my name on a major story, or just to see my name published at a major news website and reporting on the election. It's easy to start taking that stuff for granted, but then you remember the people who are just trying to get their clips out there, who are trying to look for freelance work, and they just want to write a story and have it printed. So I’d say that [I appreciate] what that meant and the trajectory it set me on. 

[It’s important to] hold those in positions of power accountable and report facts, but it’s most important to explain to people why it matters and why they should care.

I remember I was covering Mitt Romney's campaign before he was Senator Romney, when he was a former governor of Massachusetts and running against President Obama in 2012. I had this big reported piece on his time at Bain Capital basically challenging the notion that his private sector experience would serve him well as president and thus leading the federal government. That was at the center of his argument, but I did a lot more [research and reporting] on his time at Bain Capital, and when he tried to apply that type of approach to his governorship in Massachusetts, oftentimes it was to mixed success. It was the first time I had a story that was going to challenge a presidential campaign in a big way, and I remember how anxious I was when it was going to be published, all the legal checks we went through. You go through a lot of fact-checking — the variety of sources — having to check with the relevant campaign officials to let them know it's coming and give them a chance to comment. And I just remember the adrenaline when [the story] was going to go live, because then [I was] opening up myself to any and all feedback, criticism, attempts by the campaign to discredit it. So that one really sticks out because it was the first time I had a big piece that ran on the election.

Shahjehan: How has the industry changed from when you first started?

Sabrina: It's been long enough where I've seen a lot of change. The first job I got in political reporting was at Bloomberg News in 2010, and I was a stringer at their White House desk. I was supporting the White House correspondents by feeding them what we call string, which is just reporting lines on what President Obama is doing today, what his movements have looked like, what time he left for this place, what time he got back … [Things you] wouldn't have seen on TV … At that time, it was still a lot more traditional news gathering; social media was only just becoming more of a factor, and it was still pretty novel for a lot of us to tweet. People were still very conservative about guidelines for tweeting and sharing reporting and analysis that way. The cottage industry of TV analysis, which I've been a part of as well, was around, but it was nothing like what it came to be when Trump entered the picture, when it became 24/7 news where 90 percent of it (at least for a while) was about politics. Print was still going strong and there was still less attention around what would drive clicks. When you were thinking about a story, you weren't necessarily thinking about all the different platforms that it would appear on and all the different types of multimedia at your disposal.

Because there are so many ways to present information [now], today’s readers — much to our frustration — read the headline and maybe the top two lines. We have to think a lot more about how to reel them in when they're accessing news and articles on their smartphones, when they've got multiple browsers open and aren’t just sitting in front of one article at a time.

I think we have a lot less time [now] because we have the ability to publish very quickly. Most places I've worked, you have a couple minutes to send a few bullet points. And if it's a real true breaking news moment, like President Biden just announced something, you have a few minutes to get that first sentence and a few bullet points on what the announcement is. Then in 10 minutes, you better have three paragraphs ready, and within 60 minutes, you can have a 500 word story baseline ready, and then you can keep adding to it and filling it out as the day unfolds. That pace is so much faster and more competitive now that there is the technological ability to produce really quickly, and now that there are so many competitors in this space who are primarily going to publish digitally first. And there's no time for us to wait with print deadlines; there are only a handful of websites or news outlets that are putting [pieces up this quickly]. Everyone is moving real fast. When you go to Google News and see that news story [that you just published], you're going to see 40 related articles about the same announcement or speech that President Biden made that day.

There's always been a need to have more of us at the table and also to break away from this idea that Muslim journalists can only talk about or report on Muslim issues; [there’s always been a need for us] to be more part of the mainstream media. 

Shahjehan: What's your daily routine as a journalist?

Sabrina: It's changed a lot under Biden compared to Trump. Under Trump, it was like, ‘Oh, what tweets have I woken up to? Oh gosh, it's already a five alarm fire with provocation with North Korea!’ Everyone would be up in arms, going to Republicans on Capitol Hill to be like, ‘What do you think of what Trump said?’ regarding what he had tweeted, but we didn’t even know what he had tweeted, and it was this cycle that everyone was caught in. And then, while you would be putting together that story with all the reactions to what he had tweeted, by then he had actually tweeted or said something else, and it would start a whole new news cycle.

Now it's calmer. [I] wake up, check the headlines, check my email, have a cup of chai. Nurse my kid (I have a 16-month-old daughter), play with her, hang out with her at breakfast. It's not as glamorous as people think. You're meeting with your editors and colleagues, you're coming up with stories, you're making phone calls and interviewing people and just checking in with your sources to ask, ‘What's out there? What are we missing?’ Days that we go to the White House… are the moments where you're like, ‘Oh it’s President Biden speaking,’ and ‘Oh, he's late, and I just want to get out of here.’ But then you have to have those other moments. I remember my husband was with me for an event where Biden was speaking, and my husband was like, ‘Wow, the president is speaking!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ So it's really important in this industry to keep checking yourself like that. 

The days I go to the White House are a little bit more exciting because typically the president has at least one event. You gather for his speech, you try to shout a question … I've had moments where there are press conferences and a lot of pressure on you when you're asking questions on behalf of the entire press corps. It can be a bit of a mundane exercise, but it's an important moment to keep holding government officials accountable, even if they're not giving you much or they're just reverting to talking points. You are questioning them before the public, on behalf of the public, in the interest of transparency and accountability. And you go through the various day-to-day movements at the White House and you put together your stories. Some days, it's driven by what's in the news … and other days you're working on something you thought of that's a little more [stepped] back. Hopefully it makes people think and you've brought something new to the table. Those are the ones that I think you feel more proud of, that you'll remember at the end of the day.

Shahjehan: What are some of the most important skills that a good journalist should have in your experience?

Sabrina: Writing, writing, writing. No matter how much changes about our industry — it does not matter if AI is eventually going to start writing some of our stories for us, which some news outlets are experimenting with — I think everyone needs to know how to write. You can tell stories visually, and you can [even] do TikToks (which we even do here at the Wall Street Journal), but someone has to write a script.

I've done TikToks about President Biden's trip to Ukraine, or about the new Situation Room remodel that they just completed. There's always a script, no matter where you are, no matter what format it is. When you're podcasting, especially if it's journalism, there's a script, or [else] there are some questions you've thought of that you've come up with. There's a narrative that you're trying to put forward. Fundamentally, no matter what changes in this industry, you should always work on your writing. There will be some technical jobs that don't require it, but the majority of jobs require experience in writing. Good writing will always help you stand out.


Reporter and mom Sabrina Siddiqui opens her notebook from a historic trip to a war zone that carries special meaning—and logistics. 📷: AP, Valerie Plesch for WSJ, Justine Redman #ukraine #biden #whitehouse #motherhood #womenempowerment #maternity #pumping #workingmom #journalist #wsj #wallstreetjournal #thewallstreetjournal

♬ original sound - The Wall Street Journal

I think everyone should now be willing to experiment with platforms and not be afraid to embrace some of this change. I felt really old doing a TikTok for the Wall Street Journal. I'm 37, but in the TikTok era, I'm a dinosaur. I was a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–generation reporter. And now I'm being put in front of TikTok.

People want to be told stories in more compelling or accessible ways. They want you to distill what matters — and why [it matters] — in a very short span of time. I think that's a really important skill to pick up, because it actually comes back to what I think is fundamentally the most important piece of journalism — getting to the bottom of the truth. [It’s important to] hold those in positions of power accountable and report facts, but it’s most important to explain to people why it matters and why they should care. That's always been a huge challenge for me in political reporting, but frankly for journalists anywhere: why shouldn’t you care about what you're reading, what you're watching, what you're accessing? I think the more you actually experiment with different types of storytelling, the more you're going to be able to pick up on the ability to distill that for people in a way that's not always as straightforward as when you're putting together an 800 word article, going through the more traditional structure of putting a story together.

I think today, good journalists should also very much embrace new technology and new platforms, because there's no undoing it. We may rightfully think that [these new platforms have] undermined the industry in some ways. [We might think that they] have made lower quality news, news gathering and storytelling — and misinformation — more widely available, but we also have a responsibility to try and cut through that noise, to filter out the truth to people and help explain to them why they should care.

The more you actually experiment with different types of storytelling, the more you're going to be able to distill information for people in a way that's not always as straightforward as when you're going through the more traditional structure of putting a story together.

Shahjehan: Who are some Muslim journalists that you admire? 

Sabrina: I think that Ayman Mohyeldin is really great, and one of the first Muslim journalists that we saw take a more prominent role in television as a correspondent. Muslims had been analysts before, but this was someone who was just reporting from the ground. He was well known at Al Jazeera, when he was covering the 2008 – 2009 Gaza War, as well as the Arab Spring. Then he went on to report for NBC, and now he's an anchor who is not specifically focused on issues affecting the Muslim world but on both domestic and global affairs. It's great because it's the kind of representation that I think we need to see a lot more of. He's one of the people who has helped pave the way.

There's so many people like Mehdi Hassan who have brought a different style of journalism to the table, [who are] more willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of how reporting works, how journalism works, how you should and shouldn't interview people. It's very British, and it's not very American. He is obviously from the U.K., but in some ways you do need to see that more [in journalism] here in the U.S. We have a lot of decorum here, but sometimes you have to ask yourself, why? We're not here to be friends with people … we’re there to get answers, that's our job. It is completely fair for journalists to call people out when they're obfuscating or misleading or even lying to the public. And that's something that Mehdi has invested a lot in. 

Malika Bilal at Al Jazeera is one of the first Muslim journalists on a major television network who hosts a show and wears hijab. And it's not just a visual representation. She's a very substantive journalist who now also has this phenomenal podcast "The Take" that I highly recommend for going deep on issues. She's been a trailblazer for so many younger journalists … There wasn't anyone who looked like me or whose name sounded like mine when I was growing up watching the news on TV. And there are so many times where I've been the only Muslim or Brown person on a panel of people who are mostly white who were talking about issues directly affecting Muslims, or that pertain to Islamophobia, and other people are speaking on behalf of the Muslim community or dissecting it without the same knowledge. [The way] Muslims have been represented in the news in post-9/11 America [has changed]. There's always been a need to have more of us at the table and also to break away from this idea that Muslim journalists can only talk about or report on Muslim issues; [there’s always been a need for us] to be more part of the mainstream media. 

Malika is one of those people who helped show younger Muslim journalists what's possible for them.

Please follow Sabrina on Twitter and just Google her!