Jana Shortal, co-anchor at NBC-affiliate KARE 11’s “Breaking the News” in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one of the only gender-nonconforming journalists on air. In an industry where women are expected to follow “an unspoken dress code,” as Shortal calls it, embracing her own style has not been easy.
The anchor hopes she can be an inspiration for women and LGBTQ people in news and entertainment. “All I am is a daily reminder on their screens that they can be who they want to be,” Shortal told NBC News.
Shortal, 40, has been an out lesbian since she was 26 years old. But, as a reporter, she felt pressured to keep her more masculine style hidden behind what she called her “lady uniform.” For years, she put on a dress every morning and straightened her naturally curly hair into a chin-length bob.
“I did the most I could to fit into that, not knowing that it was slowly killing me, because it was like costuming almost,” she explained.
Then, in 2016, when KARE 11 offered the journalist her own show, one of her producers had an unusual request. She wanted Shortal to feel comfortable on camera and felt the only way she could do that was to be herself. Shortal brought her off-camera style to the studio: pants, loafers, cropped hair and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. Viewer reactions have been mixed, she said, from people questioning her gender to mean tweets about her short curls.
“For every negative reaction, I have to be honest, I get 500 positive reactions,” Shortal said. Her unorthodox style has attracted many fans, including a teenager who dressed up as her for Halloween.
“When you see kids dress up like you for Halloween, I think that’s awesome,” she said. “Kids don’t dress up like something for Halloween because they hate it — they’re somewhat inspired by it.”
The anchor has had her fair share of criticism, too. In 2016, Shortal covered a story about a boy who had been murdered. A media critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a column shaming the anchor for wearing skinny jeans during the somber story.
“That was just something that was obviously deeply personal, because it wasn’t about my journalism,” Shortal said. “And that was really sad, because we’ve seen that happen to women forever.”
Outraged, Shortal wrote a powerful rebuke to the critic, which went viral on social media.
The Tribune’s editors removed the column, and the critic who wrote it issued an apology to Shortal.
Shortal said criticism aimed at her appearance stems from sexism. All too often, she explained, the way a woman looks is valued over her hard work. But she said this is starting to change, especially in light of the recent #MeToo campaign that is highlighting the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.
“Women weren’t entering the workplace en masse until the last 40 years — it’s all brand new,” she said. “Women are finding their agency and power. They’re finding it right now, and I think that’s fantastic.”
The anchor’s approach to journalism is as unconventional as her fashion. She has openly defended NFL players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, which some of her viewers have found disrespectful to the military. In October, she received an email from a man who disagreed with her views.
“Here I am, this 40-year-old queer social justice girl who is responding to this factory worker from Ham Lake, which is rural Minnesota,” she said. “We’re supposed to hate each other, according to the rules of 2017.” But instead of dismissing the viewer, Shortal invited him onto her show to have a civil debate.
At the end of their conversation, Shortal said calmly, "Because you feel the way you do about the anthem and the flag does not make you a racist. Because I feel the way I do about these players doing what they do does not make me un-American, right?”
“That’s so true,” the guest quietly agreed.
While Shortal is breaking barriers, she doesn’t give herself all the credit. She nodded to legendary journalists like Dianne Sawyer and Katie Couric, who made it acceptable for women to be reporters in the first place.
“I’m totally understanding that there’s maybe 10 sets of shoulders that I stand on that allowed me to get to this place,” Shortal said. "I want the next generation to have a thousand sets of shoulders to stand on.”
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people and allies who are making a difference in the community.