Journalist Noor Tagouri Is an Expert at Earning People’s Trust
Before Noor Tagouri was Noor Tagouri — before her uncompromising storytelling changed the media landscape and placed her on the front lines of discussions about representation and responsibility in the media — she wondered if she should speak differently. In journalism school, she heard other students putting on their best Peter Jennings voices, and she set out to master the newscaster tone. She saved money and hired a pedigreed voice coach who taught in a hotel in Washington, D.C. and spoke in a moneyed drawl. During their meetings, Tagouri would read aloud. “I probably still have the folders of how every letter should be read. I would have to do exercises, like ‘ooh,’ ‘ah,’ ‘eh.’” Tagouri rolls her eyes.
“I just never felt like I could relate to that. And I never felt that people could trust you as much as they could potentially trust you if you just came to them as yourself.” Tagouri’s mentor then was Manny Fantis, now senior director of digital news and publishing at Sinclair. “You don’t need any of that,” Tagouri recalls Fantis telling her. “Your voice is strong. Just find it.” Now 25, Tagouri has found it, figuratively and literally. She’s so articulate that she makes the people around her enunciate better, like how one person with good posture can cause a roomful of people to straighten up. Her voice is authoritative and warm, and when she asks questions, people usually respond in kind.
Tagouri’s voice, paired with her genuine curosity immediately puts people at ease: Even in high-stress circumstances, the people she’s interviewing on camera never seem nervous. She thinks her hijab also helps break down walls between her and her sources. “In journalism school, all my professors were older white men. They didn’t teach me the things that have been most important to me. Which, as a member of a marginalized community, is being able to go into a story and say: How is the way that I’m going to cover this going to affect the community I’m talking about? Because I knew the harm that that had for my community.”
When, for example, Vogue shot Tagouri for the magazine’s February issue and misidentified her as Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari, Tagouri was devastated but not surprised. She has been frustrated by misrepresentation and misidentification her whole life. “Literally,” she says, “I have a shot of the baby bins on the day I was born, and my name is misspelled.” Subsequent errors have ranged from the irritating to the alarming, as when several news outlets mistakenly used Tagouri’s photos to identify Noor Salman, the widow of the Pulse nightclub shooter. For a journalist who has made it her mission to challenge the assumptions many Americans have about Muslims — “to make sure we’re seen for how we serve our communities, and not what we look like” — every error is a gutting blow.
Mixed in among those who hold ignorant assumptions about Muslims are those who see Tagouri’s hijab as a provocation, and who go out of their way to make her uncomfortable. She recalls an interview from her Newsy documentary series Sold in America, with a man who ran a legal brothel in Nevada. “When the cameras went off, the first thing he said to me was, ‘Your parents never talked to you about sex, huh?’ And I was like, ‘What makes you say that? Because they did.’ And he didn’t know what to say.” He told Tagouri she should come work for him. He said things to her that they weren’t allowed to air. “I truly think I was the first Muslim woman in a hijab he’d ever spoken to. He had a notion of what I was, and it was intimidating to him. I think he enjoyed the challenge.”
Like misidentification, belittling behavior like that has plagued Tagouri throughout her career. When she first began interning at a local news station, she was on assignment with a reporter and a photographer. The reporter told Tagouri and the photographer that he wanted to commit violence against the person he was dating because he’d learned that they were trans. Shortly after, he revealed that it was a fabrication. Tagouri thinks he made the story up as a power move. “He was just trying to make me uncomfortable. I remember feeling scared. I was in a car with him an hour away from the station, and I didn’t know what to do.” Tagouri said nothing. The photographer accompanying them laughed. “I wish the photographer — the guy there — would have said something like, ‘That’s messed up.’ ‘You can’t say things like that.’ I wish it were the norm to say, ‘That’s not okay.’”
She reflects on Fantis, who advised her during her nascent career. “The mentor I had never once made me uncomfortable. The male mentors and teachers who I trust the most, they’ll never be touchy and they’d never make comments. I even had mentors who, when we would be working or talking, would keep the door open so that they made me feel comfortable. They didn’t even have to say anything. It’s super simple to make people comfortable.”
Lauren Larson is a writer and editor in New York City, aspiring to be a writer and editor in Bali.
Photos by Paola Kudacki.