eNCA producer, writer and anchor, Joanne Joseph tells Nikki Temkin about homing in on human stories, her short temper and writing a book.
Over the last 15 years, Joanne Joseph has established herself as a familiar face on 24-hour news channel eNCA, bringing viewers regular updates on national and international stories and breaking news. Her career has given her the privilege of meeting and interviewing many high profile and formidable people. This confident figure is most passionate about finding the human angle beyond the facts and finds the extraordinary stories of ordinary people intriguing.
Media was an obvious career choice for Joseph who unexpectedly passed an audition to read the news on a youth radio station while still an undergraduate. This catapulted her into the tough balancing act of working and studying full-time. “It was difficult working 4am shifts in radio and attending lectures until late in the evening. But, it was necessary to achieve a long-term goal,” says Joseph. Disappointingly, when she started off, she found that some of those who tried to hold her back were women. She explains, “In my industry, women are stereotyped as ‘autocue monkeys’, mindless script readers unless they change that perception by participating more and demanding a say editorially. I went back with a formal qualification from writing courses and I was better armed.”
Aiming for perfection
Joseph’s career highlights have included recently interviewing the Cuban Five and presenting during Madiba’s funeral but she also refers to her harrowing 11-hour shift during 9/11 which she found both terrifying and exciting. “My standards are high. A good broadcast is not good enough – we must always aim for excellence,” she says. What remains a priority for Joseph is the human face, the human toll. Stories of heroism are what simultaneously attract and haunt her and present her biggest challenge. A relevant example for her is the Marikana tragedy. “I aim to get down to the smallest unit of the story – the impact on the human being or those left behind,” she affirms.
It is this exceptional ability to get to the core of what really matters to people that renders Joseph able to strike a tenuous balance between reporting the facts and revealing empathy. This extends into a responsibility which she feels often holds her back from commenting, for example, on socio-political issues, which could compromise her position as a news anchor. She says, “I must be seen to be objective. Of course I have opinions on things and spout them freely in the safety of my own home. But, I’m less inclined to share those views on social media or get drunk and disorderly in public!”
No ‘autocue monkey’
Joseph respects women whom she considers to be “defining what is important to them and living beyond the superficial so that their lives become significant, not because of craving the limelight but because she makes a mark on her environment and the people in it. She doesn’t run away from the ugliness but faces it head-on.” Some of these women for her include Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, Navi Pillay, (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), politician Cheryl Carolus as well as gender activist Lisa Vetten. “They’re strong, committed to their ideals and make a difference in the lives of other women on the ground,” explains Joseph. Personal mentors include her mother whom she cites as “Leading by example rather than words and teaching me the importance of independence as a woman – how much can be achieved through studying and working in a medium you love.”
Joseph’s advice to a young person starting out in her field is simple: “Be prepared for the slog it takes to succeed. There are no short cuts.” What concerns her is that we continue to view the lives and actions of women through a highly patriarchal prism. “Why should it be shocking that women choose not to be wives and mothers or commit murder, or join militant organisations as jihadists? Why is it relevant that a woman who is raped has previously been promiscuous? These are irrelevant value judgements we are struggling to shake off,” she says.
However, Joseph does think that female journalists are breaking through and trying to interrogate these previously-held habits in the way they construct stories. “There are many more strong women like Iman Rappetti, Cathy Mohlahlana and Eleni Giokos dominating news and business these days. They share their own unique perspectives and insights on politics, social issues and economics which are extremely valuable because it brings about a change in perspective and discourse,” she says. But, she’d like to see more of these women in senior managerial positions driving the news agenda, the editorial focus and policy. “This would change the direction of reporting in many organisations,” she reckons.
A bookworm at heart
In 2013 Joseph, who has a Masters Degree in English Literature, bravely ventured into the publishing world. Inspired by an interview, she wrote Drug Muled, a book about former South African beauty queen, Vanessa Goosen, who was incarcerated for drug smuggling. The book was meticulously researched and written with true insight.
“Goosen was a woman who lost more than 16 years of her life, her chance at love and motherhood and she still got up to face the world every day. There were important questions around it – how we survive trauma, the accuracy of memory, why we forgive, the price of bitterness, how we make up for lost time and facing the future when our past is constantly knocking at the door,” she says.
On a two month deadline to finish the book, she mostly wrote though every night. Joseph admits that she found the publishing landscape difficult and skewed against authors. “ I believe the model needs to change. New blood and ideas need to be injected into the industry,” she says but adds, “I’d love to write another book when I have more time!”
Joseph wishes that she’d believed in herself a little more when she was younger. She confesses that in the past, sometimes she lacked confidence in front of the camera. Her husband and parents always pushed her to keep on going. “There needs to be a concerted effort to properly train young women in media; to build their self-esteem; to tell them that their value lies beyond what they look like or whether they’re rich or poor. Education and support are the most powerful tools – they can change everything. Job shadowing will not do,” Joseph says, explaining that many are set up to fail because they simply don’t have the skills or experience required to excel. From the start, she believes that they require the right career guidance because some are seduced by the glamour of the job which they later realise doesn’t actually exist.
The morning programme means that she can keep tabs on her daughter Jade’s schoolwork and ensure that her life is balanced. And less producing means she can spend more time with her family – they enjoy going for long walks with their dog, cooking and socialising with friends. Getting out of Joburg for weekends is also important.
Joseph describes herself as “a passionate person with a short temper – or a short person with a passionate temper. My work colleagues would agree!”
This story was first published in the August 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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