Jo Munnik (pronouns: she/her) is a South African documentary producer who covers stories across Africa; from 33 degrees South to 33 North, and a lot of East and West in between. Her work mostly focuses on wildlife conservation, social change and women’s issues. She is passionate about telling authentic and meaningful stories, which connect global audiences to Africa – stories that reflect the changing world in a responsible, sensitive, and engaging way.
For the past year and a half, Jo has been freelance and was previously CNN’s staff Africa features producers. Jo shares her experiences from the field working in the international news and documentary production industry as well as advice for wildlife scientists looking to share their own research with the world.
“So, I’ve given guest lectures before and people have asked about the formula for getting to where you are. And I am the perfect example of there is no formula.”
From age four, Jo wanted to be an actress and at the age of 20, traveled all the way to New York to audition for the Juilliard, a world-class school of performing arts. But it wasn’t at all what she thought it would be:
“It was a disaster, and the outcome of that experience was that I’ve never acted since. I thought it was what I would do with my life but realized it wasn’t at all!”
At 19, Jo had started working in the local TV industry in South Africa and following her acting audition, she found she still had a passion for creating content and working in the space that communicates great stories. So, back in Africa with a new goal in sight, she worked her way up. In three years, she had gone from making coffees and taking minutes to landing a job as a production manager at Carte Blanche, South Africa’s flagship investigative journalism program.
“But I always knew that I didn’t just want to be organizing stuff, rather, I wanted to be telling stories .”
Jo went on to become a producer, working for almost all of South Africa’s leading broadcasters and has covered some of continent’s biggest breaking news events, including the Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi and Nelson Mandela’s death. She was also head of production for a 24-hour dedicated news channel to coverage of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.
She’s worked in D.C, Abu Dhabi, London and across Africa. Jo has produced for VICE News, BBC, CNN, NBC, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, Reuters, ITN and various leading local broadcasters. Previously, Jo was the Africa features producer for CNN International for five years. In that time, she directed, produced, and wrote over two hundred programs, from over twenty countries, for CNN’s weekly sponsored content programming and digital platforms. Jo went freelance over a year and a half ago and remains in this space today. She continues to contribute to CNN’s Africa programming as well working for other leading international broadcasters including Vice News, BBC Africa Eye and NGOs.
WORK-LIFE BALANCE ON SHORT-TERM CONTRACTS
Starting out in ecology sounds very similar to starting out in journalism! You’re jumping around between short-term contracts, moving frequently for work, trying to pitch yourself, build your experience and get your name out there. We asked Jo if she had any advice for creating stability and work-life balance under these conditions, early in your career.
“The work-life balance thing is a constant work in progress – something I’ll work on for the rest of my career.”
As for stability, lots of people find stability in having a permanent job, something Jo is now re-learning having gone freelance:
“I’m very glad to have gone freelance because I have learned so much about myself and broadened my horizons from a storytelling perspective, but there is an enormous amount of stability in contracts and long-term positions.”
Jo recommends working a full-time, permanent role for a while to establish yourself before venturing off in pursuit of the freedom of freelance when you have a bigger safety net – some savings, a broader network of connections and an idea of where you’re heading.
One of the best parts of being a generalist, especially early on in your career, is that you build the capacity to adapt and build resilience in the field. Jo explains:
“I am a proud generalist because what that means is I can adapt to different locations and environments and people and stories… and so, I suppose the stability in jumping around comes from within yourself, knowing that you’ve got this!”
And, for anyone needing a confidence boost today, Jo says –
“You wouldn’t be in this space if you weren’t the type of person who could handle it!”
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNICATION FOR SCIENTISTS
Although scientists can be great at being scientists and communicating academically, translating this into layman’s terms to become meaningful to a broader audience can be challenging. Jo explains –
“Interviewing scientists is one of the hardest parts of my jobs, because scientists are these brilliant people who are not so good at dumbing stuff down to a broader audience and making it bite-size and palatable for people who may be coming across, for example, African manatees, for the first time – so they can be really challenging to interview.”
“I’m coming into contact more and more with scientists who specialize as science communicators which is so valuable and filming with these people is great because they just get it and they’re able to take unbelievably important stories and make them palatable for a broader audience.”
Jo believes the role of science communication is so important, especially now. She explains:
“Human beings have existed for a long time now thinking we are independent of science and independent of nature and the environment, and really not getting that we are nature and we are the environment and we exist because of it.”
Whether they like it or not, scientists have an incredibly important role now: which is essentially to help your average person understand why science is a critical part of theirs and everyone’s life – the future of humanity and our planet. Jo explains –
“As a journalist, I have access to amazing broadcast platforms that go out to viewerships of hundreds of millions of people around the world – and I feel very strongly that my role as a journalist, a filmmaker, as someone who is passionate about the environment, is to find scientists and help give them access to this platform so that we can share their stories. I take that quite seriously.”
HOW TO COMMUNICATE YOUR WORK
For Jo, there’s a lot of fun in discovering scientists although she often finds that so many of them are not great at advocating for themselves.
“I find them, and the work they’re doing and say, “Hey, would you like to share your story on an international platform like CNN?” And for the most part, they’re like, no, no, I don’t. That sounds terrifying. But it’s wonderful when people do come on and share those stories.”
Especially for scientists working in the wildlife and conservation spaces, these stories are particularly captivating in the medium of film and television – because the visuals are so captivating!
“People are immediately drawn into a story that has a connection to environmental conservation, just because visually it’s so powerful and intriguing”
As Jo explains, being able to picture these issues firsthand is one of the best ways to create empathy and foster a personal connection is very important for engaging people in issues of nature conservation as well as changing hearts and minds towards supporting wildlife and their habitats. So, we all know that science communication is a powerful tool, but how can scientists better communicate their work to amplify their impact? Jo speaks from her experience –
“A lot of that is to be honest, being solved in part by social media. Although it can be a controversial platform, I think it’s an easy space for scientists to share their stories in a palatable way with nice captions and cool photos which taps into a much broader network of not just scientists, but journalists and people who are interested.”
But if you’re already on social media, and looking to make a broader impact, Jo encourages everyone to reach out –
“Reach out to media people like myself and say, “Hey, I am working on this. Do you think this is something that might be of interest to one of the people for whom you produce content? And could we have a chat?” Don’t be scared to put yourself out there – because people are interested!”
So often you find ecologists in particular who say they’ve come to the space because, as they say: “I’m an animal person, I don’t really like people.” But so many conservation issues are focused around human activity (or inactivity) and so, being able to put your work out into the public space and share the impacts that you’re seeing firsthand is so important in the path to overcoming them.
Jo is always looking for and pitching stories that are science-, conservation-, wildlife-orientated, and sometimes they’re hard to find! She says:
“If anybody is reading this, and you work in this space in Africa (as that’s where I’m based) – reach out, please do! I literally got asked two days ago to find a great female scientist from South Africa, and I spent a weekend researching, trying to find someone! So, we’re always looking for great people doing great things.”
OVERCOMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME
Often, pitching ourselves and our work to the world can be a daunting process. And when we build up the courage to go for it, often we find imposter syndrome rears its ugly head. We asked Jo about tips for managing imposter syndrome:
“I think, off the bat, imposter syndrome is something that all of us battle with. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t battle with it myself. It’s very real – especially in spaces where we are putting ourselves out there and putting our stories out there.”
Although imposter syndrome is a very real part of both our personal and professional lives. So how do we manage this and get our research out into the big wide world? Jo says –
“I think it’s very important to know that we are all a collection of stories and these are stories that other people want to hear (and will probably benefit from hearing!). For me, stories are our greatest currency. And although you may not think you have an amazing story, I promise you there’s something in it! When I speak with people who are reluctant to be interviewed, they often have the best stories – and they had no idea. It doesn’t have to be huge – but we all have great stories and we all have great stories to share.”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Jo would encourage any scientists reading this to reach out to amplify the story they are creating through their research or wildlife work, even if you’ve never been involved in media or had a negative experience in the past.
“I think it’s worth saying that not all film crews are experienced filming with wildlife, and have unrealistic expectations which can create negative experiences for ecologists”
For example, inexperienced film crews within this space may expect that at 5am sharp, a lion will arrive and walk across the horizon and react badly if this doesn’t happen.
“But there are those of us who do understand that that is not how it works and who often will be considerate about these things, so please don’t be put off if you’ve had that experience previously”
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