Meet Fatima Syed, The Narwhal’s new Ontario reporter

From a hailstorm in Saudi Arabia to dust storms in Dubai, Fatima Syed has endured the effects of climate change and feels a moral duty, as a journalist, to confront it

Fatima Syed’s exposure to both journalism and the climate crisis came early in life. As a child, she was always drawn to storytelling, especially since she was exposed to people from all walks of life through attending British school in the Middle East.

“They all had such interesting stories and concerns and life experiences,” she says. “I think it just seeped into my brain that I wanted to head toward a storytelling path.”

This interest in journalism later made a lot more sense when she found out that her grandfather had also been a journalist and was kind of a big deal in South Asia — dare we say, much like Fatima is in Canada today.

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And through her childhood growing up in the Middle East, Fatima had first-hand experience with a rapidly changing climate.

“My first experience with climate change was in the early 2000s: a hailstorm in Saudi Arabia, which is basically a desert,” she says. “That was wild.” She also lived through natural disasters such as the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean as well as increasing dust storms in Dubai after 2006. Scientists say there is some evidence showing how climate change can contribute to or exacerbate these types of disasters. All this made her realize “that climate change was going to basically destroy humanity if we don’t do anything.”

And do something she has. Fatima has worked in all corners of Canadian journalism, from being a reporter at the Toronto Star to a podcast host at Canadaland to a vice-president at the Canadian Association of Journalists. During all these stints, she’s been certain about the importance of accurate coverage of the climate crisis and we’re so excited for her to bring this experience to The Narwhal.

In between her many jobs, we got the chance to chat with Fatima about her perspective on Canadian journalism and all the licence plates she loves — it’ll make more sense once you read it. 

What does good journalism look like to you?

The journalism that stays with me are the stories that dive deep and zoom out — that just connect a bunch of aspects of society and community. I think those are the stories that make an impact on me, move me and force me to think about the world around me. Give me a story where you have some characters that I would never have met, experiencing things in a way that I never would have imagined. 

Because at the end of the day, for me, journalism is a lens by which we can see our world better and understand our world better. The stories that do that the best for me are the ones that connect all the dots and immerse you in an aspect of the world that you hadn’t thought about very well at all.

Fatima Syed poses for a portrait by the water
Journalism is a lens by which we can see our world better and understand our world better,” says Fatima, whose nuanced views on journalism have helped her land some incredible stories in Canadian media. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your experience as a journalist?

You can’t go into a story having your mind made up of what that story is. Sometimes I think there’s this preconception that journalists know exactly what they’re seeking. That when they speak to someone, the journalist knows exactly what they want from them and how they want to fit them into the story they’re working on. I’ve learned over the years, no matter what beat you’re covering, what global or local issue you’re covering, you just have to be open to things not being the way you thought they would be. 

You’ve worn many hats in Canadian media — what have you learned from all these experiences?

I think I’ve written for every medium of journalism that exists, which is really cool to think about. I used to joke for the longest time that I’m a niche-less journalist — I don’t fit neatly into a box. You can’t call me just a reporter because I’m also a podcast host. You can’t just say that I’m a writer because I also come on TV sometimes. You can’t just call me a climate journalist because I’ve also reported on race and social justice and more. So for the longest time, I really enjoyed that. Because being a journalist means exploring the world around you and the world around you isn’t just one beat or one issue or one topic. 

The most important thing I’ve learned from working across mediums is that you can tell a story through any means, through any method. And if you do it well enough, and if you do it powerfully enough, it will have an immense impact on the people around you.

Being a journalist means exploring the world around you and the world around you isn’t just one beat or one issue or one topic.

What responsibilities do environmental journalists bear when covering the climate crisis?

I think we have to take a more holistic approach. So often climate journalism exists in a box of its own and we forget the fact that it is the thread that binds human life to natural life in every single kind of way. As climate journalists and as journalists broadly, we have to be mindful and careful about telling stories in a way that always recognizes that human life is very, very tied to what happens to planet Earth. And we need to connect those dots in more accessible, interesting and informative ways. 

There’s this tweet a while ago from a climate journalist, George Monbiot, and he basically said that every climate scientist and environmental journalist in the world right now needs to make a decision.

Journalists today have this moral duty to not merely report what’s happening to the natural world around us — and by extension how it’s impacting human life — but also to confront it. We can’t just be neutral observers of it anymore, we actually have to engage with the impacts that are unfolding around us. I think all journalists need to contend with how to make those links and how to tell those stories in a way that everyone understands how important this is.

What are the biggest issues facing journalism in Canada today?

Burnout. Especially after the pandemic, I think journalists have been working extremely hard in a never-ending news cycle, in less than fun conditions and recently dealing with a lot of negative reader pushback that goes beyond criticism and more toward harassment.

I think burnout has been the creeping problem in the industry for a very, very long time. Now, we’re sort of talking about it but we still haven’t reached the point where we have solutions beyond, “Oh, just take care of yourself and take some time off and step away from the news cycle.”

Fatima Syed poses for a portrait by a building
To Fatima, climate journalists need to not only report on the changes brought to the world by the climate crisis, but also to confront them. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Can you tell us three random things about yourself?

I’ve lived in five different cities in my life. Karachi, Pakistan; three different cities in Saudi Arabia; Dubai and now Mississauga, Ont. My experience with climate change has varied because of the cities I’ve lived in, so I think that’s been fun and interesting.

I love watching sports tournaments. Having said that, I have lived in Canada for 10 years and I do not know how to skate properly. I’ve never once played ice hockey or watched an ice hockey game live and I’ve not really embarked on many winter sports. I know it makes no sense to be a sports fan and not have tried these things so, I don’t know, maybe I’ll find the courage someday.

I am really obsessed with personalized licence plates. My eyes are just drawn to licence plates on cars and if I see one I will bother a passenger (usually my sister) to take a picture for me to add to a folder on my phone. People put the randomest things on them: pet names, insults, slogans, job professions. It makes my drives more interesting.

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