Ginella Massa never dreamed of landing her dream job. Partly because not a lot of broadcasters end up helming their own show. And partly because, as a visible Muslim woman, part of her didn’t see it as a possibility. On Monday, the 33-year-old York University graduate, longtime Citytv reporter, and Canada’s first hijab-wearing broadcaster will make (even more) history as the host of Canada Tonight, CBC’s new nightly primetime news and current-events program where Massa will interview the not-so-usual suspects.
Here, she talks to Refinery29 about her plans to push beyond the headlines, the blessing and curse of being “a first,” and why she will no longer be watching The Bachelor on Mondays. (Hint: she’s got better things to do.)
Happy New Year! I’m not sure if we can call it that…
I know. I almost don’t want to wish anyone “happy” new year because it feels like I’m tempting fate.
Right. Okay, so welcome to 2021.
Welcome to 2021. May it be boring.
I’m not really. I don’t want to wait until January to think about growing and doing better. I want to be inspired at all times. And you know, I already have a pretty big life change coming up.
Right. I guess with the new show, I should be asking you about last year’s resolutions.
Last year at this time I was definitely looking for a challenge and a change. Thinking about where I wanted to take my career. I’ve been in news for a decade. I would get asked a lot about What’s next? What’s your dream job? I don’t think I ever could have imagined anchoring my own show on a national network. In some ways it was hard for me to even imagine what that possibilities were. Throughout my career I have always been a first. It’s not easy to imagine yourself in a position when you’ve never seen someone who looks like you in it. Nobody ever said to my face, "you will never get a job on television because you wear a hijab." Partly because that’s discrimination, you can’t say that. But it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking it. Canadians are very polite. It comes in backhanded compliments and micro-aggressions.
anchoring Canada Tonight your dream job?
We’re building something from the ground up. I’m not just filling an existing slot. I’ve never had this level of editorial discretion before — getting to decide not just which stories we tell, but how we tell them, who we’re talking to. I can remember walking into my internship at the largest local news network in the country and it did not look like the Toronto I grew up in.
The headlines have been pretty relentless since last March. Even since Wednesday! Do you have panic dreams where we get to the night before your premiere and suddenly nothing happens?
For a while I had this anxiety like I'm going to wake up on Monday and there’s going to be no news. But as we get closer that’s obviously not going to be an issue. My team and I have been doing mock shows where we try to imagine if we were on air today, what would we be covering and how would we be covering it. Our goal is to go beyond the obvious sources and bring our own perspective to the story, whether it’s politicians sneaking off on vacations or what we saw this week in the U.S.
So taking those examples, what might your coverage look like?
I think with the attack on the Capitol building we would want to look at how these kinds of forces exist here in Canada. And then the other thing is that it took a while for the mainstream news to recognize the contradictions in the way the people at the Capitol building were treated by law enforcement versus the Black Lives Matter protesters. When we talk about the importance of diversity in a newsroom — that is something people of colour notice right away. With the story about the politicians going on holiday, rather than looking at the political fallout, we might look at the psychology of rule breakers. How regular people are making decisions around which rules they follow.
There are people who think I was hired to check a box and to fill the diversity quota, so there is this feeling of having to prove myself every day.
Speaking of, how hard core are you about sticking to the rules?
I want to be careful about how I answer this. I got yelled at for admitting on TV that I had trouble following the arrows at the grocery store. I’m definitely the person on the family WhatsApp who’s trying to debunk all of the conspiracy theories. For me though, the most difficult thing about COVID is that I’m an extrovert so I very much miss the social aspect of life. Just going for lunch with my girlfriends — I can’t wait. I feel lucky to have been working in a newsroom up until last month. It was pretty empty, but I liked having a reason to get up and get dressed and put makeup on every day.
What’s something else about you that we might not know from watching you on TV?
A lot has been made of me being the first hijab-wearing anchor on TV, but I actually have a lot of different identities. I was born in Panama to Spanish-speaking parents, I’m a child of immigrants, my mom was a single mom. All of those identities influence my opinions and interests and how I see the world. A lot of times people want to put me in a box based on what they see.
Obviously being “a first” is something to be extremely proud of, but is it annoying to constantly be defined in those terms?
There are a lot of feelings attached. I feel proud to be the first and to open the door a crack for those behind me. I don’t want to be the first and the only. I also feel a lot of pressure to do well. I feel like there is no room for failure or even to be mediocre. There are people who think I was hired to check a box and to fill the diversity quota, so there is this feeling of having to prove myself every day.
No pressure, right?
It’s exciting and scary for any reporter to go from a local to a national platform, but I have the added layer of representing an entire community and our place in media.
Women in broadcasting face so much scrutiny around their appearance. Does that affect your approach to personal style?
I’m definitely conscious of the way I present myself. Wanting to show that just because I wear a hijab doesn’t mean I have to look frumpy or I can’t be stylish. I’m still trying to figure out what I'm going to wear for the first broadcast. I think I might meet with a stylist, but honestly I don’t know if I’ll have time.
It’s not like you have to think about anchoring a nightly news show or anything.
I joke that at least I don’t have to stress about having a bad hair day. Really though, it is an added stress. Wanting to make sure I’m representing modest Muslims, wanting to be fashionable, wanting to be taken seriously…
If only you could just throw on a navy suit with a sharp tie and be done with it.
I know. There is really no way to win. I’ve had someone tweet at me because of my chipped nail polish!
I like being on social media because I think it’s important to be engaged with people, to have conversations, to show people that I’m a human being with thoughts and ideas, but that means I have to take the good with the bad.
You can get 100 positive comments, but the negative things tend to stick with you. It’s helpful that a lot of the negative messaging is coming from ignorant people and racists. The reason I say that is because it has nothing to do with me personally. Most of the time it’s not an attack on my journalism. It’s not coming from anyone who has watched a story that I have done or read something that I have written. They have just looked at my picture and decided that they’re offended.
My favourite was from a while ago. Someone re-posted a piece about me in the New York Times, but changed the headline to “Canada’s first hijab-wearing, bacon-hating anchor.” I said, “Well, I don’t hate bacon, I just don’t eat it. And really you should be happy because there’s more for you.” Honestly, you just have to laugh. I will never understand how people spend all of this time writing me essays about how they won’t be watching my show.
What are your go-to de-stress rituals?
I noticed you live-tweeting The Bachelor—
First Black Bachelor! I had to support him. It’s funny because he was talking about how he’s feeling a lot of pressure, he doesn’t want to let his community down, he feels like whatever decision he makes not everyone is going to be happy. I was like, this is so relatable. I won’t be able to keep watching though — the show airs at the same time as mine does.