Josie Kao portrait

‘We should question our assumptions’: The Narwhal’s new Assistant Editor on boundary-pushing journalism

Josie Kao believes good journalism is rooted in authentic connections with readers. We couldn’t agree more

Josie Kao was sitting in the computer lab at her high school in Burnaby, B.C., editing articles for the school newspaper, when something shocking interrupted her workflow: an article entitled “The colour of crime” that organized crime statistics by race but didn’t address the systemic issues behind the numbers. 

“I was like, this is racist,” she said. “Before that, I trusted that everything my editors gave me would be publishable.” 

Josie talked with her editors, and the story was withdrawn. 

“That experience really stuck with me because it showed me the importance of being critical as an editor and it made me realize I still had so much left to learn,” she said. 

It was the first time she’d stood up against harmful coverage, but it wouldn’t be the last.

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Josie went on to become editor-in-chief of the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, where she helped build a newsroom that supports equity and checks its own biases on the regular. 

Campus media is well-positioned to do that reflective work because it’s deeply connected to the communities it covers and feedback comes quickly, Josie said. “We know exactly when we’ve messed up and we know when we’ve done it right.” 

That connection helps journalists identify the gaps in their coverage and tell better, more empathetic stories, she added. “It helps attract people because when you’re telling their stories right, they’re more likely to trust you.”

Josie, who recently spent four months working as a web editor at The Globe and Mail, sees parallels between campus media and The Narwhal. “They’re both super-community driven and they both try to be in tune with their members.” 

Like Josie, the folks at The Narwhal are mega-fans of responsive, nuanced journalism that’s shaking up the industry. That’s why our team is thrilled to introduce her as our new Assistant Editor. 

We caught up with Josie and learned a few things about her hopes for the industry, her love of all things books and her trepidation around spicy foods. 

Why did you decide to become a journalist?

First, I wanted to do something that involved writing — I knew that that was my life’s goal. I was also interested in helping other people write, whether through editing or publishing. But the other more idealistic reason is that I wanted to help people. 

Keeping people informed is the basic layer of journalism, but going beyond that requires storytelling: that means either telling a story that wouldn’t have been told otherwise or telling a story where someone can finally see themselves in it for the first time. Whenever I’ve experienced that, it’s been super-fulfilling. So these are goals that I’m constantly working toward. 

What are some topics that you feel most compelled to write about and why?

I’m passionate about reporting on under-covered issues, like mental health on campuses and inaccessibility in the individualized environmental movement, and I love covering the hyperlocal effects of international news. I like looking at really niche areas and using them to explore larger, systemic issues. I’m most interested in covering people’s stories, personal stories, without losing sight of the larger context surrounding them. 

I also love writing about books. I love reading — it’s probably the only hobby that I have. I’m fascinated by the process of it all: the publishing industry, how books get to people, what kind of books don’t make it to people. It’s a new area for me, but it’s one I’m exploring more. 

If you could work as a journalist anywhere in the world (besides Canada) where would you go and why? 

I would love to work in East Asia because that’s where my family is from and I love it there — I love the food and the culture. I’d also like to work in China because it’s a hugely important country with a wealth of stories that haven’t been told for Canadians. There is great journalism happening in those places for local audiences, which is really valuable, but I think there’s a lot of room for growth in the journalism that is being produced for international audiences. I would love to be a part of that. 

When did you first become aware of environment issues?

My family loves to go camping, so I was always immersed in nature and wildlife. But then one time when I was about nine years old, we took a road trip to Alaska. We packed up our RV and drove up to the Arctic Ocean. And that was the most incredible trip. First of all because it was so beautiful — we saw foxes and bears and moose. But it was also one of my first experiences becoming aware of ecological loss. I remember driving along an isolated highway and suddenly all the trees disappeared as we drove into a clearcut. I remember asking my parents, “What happened to this forest, did it burn down?” And they told me, “No, this was purposeful.” It was so removed from the city of Vancouver, where I grew up, so that was my first exposure to deforestation. 

Then in high school, I was president of our environment club. That was also a great experience working with like-minded people. We had a lot of support to work on projects: we started a composting program, we worked in the garden and we did fundraisers. 

What does good journalism look like to you?

I think good journalism should constantly be pushing boundaries — other people’s and its own — and constantly questioning its assumptions. By that I mean we should question our assumptions about who we think is reading our work and who we include in it. It also means being reflective about the stories we’re telling and the ones we don’t tell. 

For example, when people talk about race, a lot of times the conversation centres white people, saying things like, “People are more concerned about anti-Black racism now.” Those kinds of statements are referring to white people most of the time. Really great journalism to me looks like not taking those things for granted and always trying to use the medium to push for change in a greater way. 

Can you tell us three random things about yourself?

I have an incredibly low spice tolerance. My family probably wants to disinherit me because they all love spicy food. I’ve been trying to get better at it over the past few years, but it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I can’t even handle certain amounts of black pepper. It’s really bad. 

At one point in my life, I considered becoming a professional viola player. That was because I was told that no matter how bad you are, every orchestra always needs a viola player. I discovered that there’s a limit to how bad you can be. 

I did so many road trips as a kid that I’ve been to all 10 provinces, one territory and most U.S. states. 

Zoë Yunker is a former Narwhal intern and a master's of journalism student at the University of British Columbia. She…

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