The Story Behind Her: Journalist Polly Irungu on Taking Up Space as a Black Woman

Women journalists have always been at the forefront of change—so as the U.S. faces compounding crises, it’s no surprise that women journalists are stepping up to bring truth to the public.

During Women’s History Month 2021, the International Women’s Media Foundation and Ms. began spotlighting women journalists who are making the news media stronger, more diverse and equitable. But their work didn’t end on March 31—and neither does ours. Change starts with recognizing the people behind the byline. All year, join us on the last Thursday of the month to learn The Story Behind Her.



This Week: Polly Irungu

This week, meet Polly Irungu (@pollyirungu), a multimedia journalist and founder of Black Women Photographers, a community and database of Black women and non-binary photographers.

The Story Behind Her: Journalist Polly Irungu on Taking Up Space as a Black Woman
“I am a Black woman; I am an African,” said Irungu. “My identities help shape my perspective and how I approach my work. I know I am a much better reporter and human because of that.” (Courtesy)

I am a journalist, but I’m also…

a Black woman, daughter, sister and friend.

What gaps do you see in the photojournalism industry?

Oh, where to begin. There is so much work that needs to be done across the board in this industry. I am just hoping and praying that we all do not leave the field before then.

In 2020, one of the most common phrases we heard in newsrooms was that “our newsrooms should reflect the diversity of America.” That sounds great on paper. But when would it actually become a reality? And what happens after?

What was the catalyst for your work?

I entered this field thinking that I was alone. I was pursuing a nontraditional career in a predominantly white state and had no one to turn to.

It wasn’t until I experienced my first National Association of Black Journalists conference that I realized that I could take up space in this industry. It was one of the most important career-defining turning points I’ve had to this day.

The Story Behind Her: Journalist Polly Irungu on Taking Up Space as a Black Woman
“There is so much work that needs to be done across the board in this industry,” said Irungu. “I am just hoping and praying that we all do not leave the field before then.” (Courtesy)

How do your identities shape your reporting? When did your intersections help you report better or help you approach a story differently?

I think five years from now we’ll laugh about all of the conversations that took place in 2020 about objectivity and whether or not a Black journalist could remain objective in their reporting. I am never one to shy away from my identities in and out of my work.

I am a Black woman; I am an African. I cannot just leave those identities at the door. My identities help shape my perspective and how I approach my work. I know I am a much better reporter and human because of that.

Without the intersections of my identities, I don’t think I would have been able to advocate to have this story [on the impact of losing a parent to police violence]. Or this story [on the enduring legacy of slavery in the U.S.]. Or this story [on the toll of covering police brutality as a Black journalist]—or the many other stories I have pitched to NPR—on airwaves across the country.

What historical first do you hope we see? 

I am really optimistic about seeing the first Black woman become president of the United States in my lifetime. I am really optimistic that it can and will happen on more than one occasion.

The Story Behind Her: Journalist Polly Irungu on Taking Up Space as a Black Woman
“It wasn’t until I experienced my first National Association of Black Journalists conference that I realized that I could take up space in this industry,” said Irungu. (Courtesy)

What has it been like reporting this past year? What has been the reality for you while telling the stories we’ve seen? How are you coping?

Whew, I think my mental health suffered the most this past year. It felt like a constant cycle of terrible, traumatizing news that never seemed to end. Honestly, have we even had a moment to process it all? I tried to take a ‘step back’ from the work but that never actually seemed to work. For the first time, I could feel the stress of it all taking a toll on my body. It was then that I knew I had to do something.

I started to cope by carving out more time to unplug from it all. I would take daily walks with my mom that allowed me to decompress and not spend time staring at a screen. That hour and a half of peace was something that I clung to for quite some time last year.

Who’s in your ideal group chat?

You know, I am actually loving all of my current group chats, but if I was able to choose, I would absolutely love to be in or have a group chat with Abby Phillip. Abby is just *that* woman.

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The International Women’s Media Foundation's mission is to unleash the potential of women journalists as champions of press freedom to transform the global news media.