Yamiche Alcindor, national reporter for USA Today, knows that the protests and riots that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer really were as chaotic as much of the media reported them to be. Tear gas burned the eyes of reporters and protesters alike, stores were looted, and people were carted off in ambulances.
Alcindor also saw a different side of the protests, one that most people weren’t aware of. She recalled how both the looters and the police, who were often branded as the villains, saw her safely back to her car some nights.
There is always a different side to a story, Alcindor says, and understanding those other sides requires being immersed in the action. It’s where she likes to be. A native of southern Florida, Alcindor has been reporting since high school, when she started as an intern at a weekly African-American paper, the Westside Gazette. Since then, she has worked at The Miami Herald, The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Newsday and, currently, USA Today.
We talked about covering high-profile stories like the protests in Ferguson and the aftermath and trial of the 2012 fatal shooting of another unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., and how to approach such potentially delicate stories in an age where one bad tweet can destroy a career.
Q: When did you know you were going to be a journalist?
A: I decided to be a journalist as soon as I started writing about the election in 2004. I had always been a writer and a poet and a short story writer. I was 16 or 17 when I started writing for newspapers and I decided it was what I wanted to do. At the Miami Herald, I covered a crime story in Miami that made me want to tell stories about the neighborhoods I grew up in.
You graduated with degrees in English and government and a minor in African-American studies. Should young journalists avoid majoring in journalism and focus on topics they’d like to write about?
I’m torn on this. Because I interned at The Miami Herald before I went to college, everyone told me not to major in journalism. I had an internship, and they invited me back for a second internship after my freshman year. They told me I was already on my way, and they saw the journalism instinct in me. So it depends. If you have internships and do journalism outside of school and work for your school paper but love anthropology, then go study anthropology because you’re going to be a journalist for the rest of your life. Now I’m in grad school in journalism at New York University, studying documentary filmmaking and video journalism. My journalism skills have improved since I’ve been in grad school. You can have a professor sit down and tell you the horrible things you did that day. You’re probably not going to get that in a newsroom.
You’re fluent in Haitian Creole and also know some French. How important are foreign language skills for journalists?
It’s huge. Knowing another language allows you to get into communities and talk to people. America is so multilingual and diverse that the more languages a journalist can learn, the better, and the more opportunities they’ll have. At most of the papers I’ve worked for, I’ve been the only journalist who can speak Creole. If you’re Haitian, you speak Creole. I never thought that Haitian Creole was going to matter; it wasn’t something I’d even put on a resume. But after the earthquake in Haiti happened, when I was in my first job with Newsday, it turned out to be super important. I covered (the earthquake) and went to pretty much all the Haitian events. I was able to tell the editors where the Haitian population was in Long Island – all because I’m Haitian and knew how to find Haitians. Whatever native language you have in your household, it’s really super important to make that useful.
You’re a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Do you recommend minority journalists join minority associations?
It’s a personal choice. I ended up at NABJ because a lot of my mentors became African-American journalists who took a special interest in me. I got a scholarship and internships, was recruited for jobs, made lifelong friends and got my boyfriend through NABJ. So in my experience, yes, it’s great to join an organization like NABJ. I would recommend it, but I also know people who aren’t a part of NABJ who have had great careers.
How did your experience working for Mmegi newspaper in Botswana come about?
I wanted to study abroad in college and went to Botswana. I fell in love with Botswana and didn’t want to leave. I had a summer internship (back home) with a media organization and I actually didn’t show up. It was the most irresponsible thing I’ve done. But I was so in love with where I was and I was finding myself. I had joined a poetry group. I also knew I needed to find a journalism outlet to justify to my mentors why I didn’t come home. I found a newspaper in Botswana and wrote columns on what it was like being a black American in Africa. It was an awesome experience. I don’t know if I would recommend it to everyone. It is kind of an uphill battle. But for me it was the best eight months of my life.
You’ve covered some of the nation’s most controversial stories in recent years, including reaction to the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. As a reporter, was there anything you tried to do or avoid?
With both stories, as with all the stories I cover, I go in wanting to give people an honest portrayal of what I’m seeing, hearing and experiencing. I tried my best to go in with fresh eyes and find stories that showed nuances. I wrote a first-person account about how looters were being nice to me and police officers were not arresting me. And how police officers were offering me rides home and looters were offering to walk back to my car with me as they held their stolen goods while trying to get to their cars.
I try to make the story more complex than just a sound bite: “People are protesting because they’re really mad.” I interviewed George Zimmerman’s family many times because it was important to not only interview Trayvon Martin’s family but also to explain what it means for George Zimmerman’s mother and brother to go through what they’re going through. In Ferguson, I was trying to show what I was seeing and to explain that yes, people are being tear-gassed. Sometimes people thought the media was sensationalizing things there. Over 12 hours, I watched people get shot (with rubber bullets) and tear-gassed and taken away by ambulances. We’re not sensationalizing this; this is what is going on in a small city near you.
Trying to tell stories in a balanced way is important to me. That is what I love about being a journalist. There are 20 million ways to give your opinion on the Internet. The challenge I love more is the idea of showing people all the different sides and allowing them to have a more complex understanding than what nationally might come through.
What are some things that journalists should avoid doing in stories that deal with race and other controversial topics?
It depends on what kind of journalist you are. If you’re a journalist for a publication where you’re expected to give your opinions, then you should give your opinions. If you’re a journalist from a straight line, “just report” publication, then you need to just report. You choose what company you’re with, so you need to understand your company and what your role is as a journalist and act accordingly. (My race) can inform my writing in terms of how I talk to people and making sure I talk to enough people (when reporting for an article). I’m black, and I’m not going to hide that I’m black. But I’m hoping that when people read my stuff they’re not going to think, “Oh she’s just someone who is race-baiting and we knew she was going to write that.”
What have you learned as a journalist on Twitter while covering high-profile stories?
I’ve learned that autocorrect will really correct anybody’s name. Your phone will absolutely ruin your tweet. So I read tweets really carefully. I’ve learned you can have Twitter-only stories, which is weird because you only get 140 characters. I interviewed Spike Lee for 28 seconds (at Michael Brown’s funeral). In those 28 seconds, I had a vignette. I couldn’t write the story on Spike Lee and his son, but I could put the interview on Twitter. Also, re-tweeting interesting information is a good practice. A lot of journalists tweet their own thoughts and stories and don’t tweet other journalists’ stories enough. In Ferguson, I was tweeting out what The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC was writing. Those were really good stories that needed to be out there. And interaction is key. Of course, I don’t answer all the questions posed on Twitter, but I try to get to as many as I can. I want people to be able to feel like hey, this person really cares about me and about readers.
What is modern news reporting missing when it comes to covering minority communities?
That’s a hard question to answer because I’m from Miami and Little Haiti, and the communities of color are covered in a really dynamic way. The Miami Herald set me on my path for covering many of the issues I cover now. I come from a place where people who don’t speak English have their own paper. Of course, the issues affecting communities of color and the nuances of communities of color might need to be covered in a more in-depth way. I wish I could comment on how communities of color in Chicago and St. Louis are covered, but I don’t know enough about coverage there. In all communities, newspapers need journalists who look like the people they’re covering. I’m not saying journalists who aren’t of color can’t go into those neighborhoods. But having diversity in the newsrooms is key to being able to understand the issues.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.