Jessica Alpert is not only a journalist, but also a professional storyteller and oral historian. The daughter of a Northeastern father and a Salvadoran mother, she specializes in features that tell the stories of minorities, focusing on Central American religious minorities like Mormons and Jews.
She recorded 60 Jewish family interviews in El Salvador communities as a Fulbright Scholar in 2005-2006. Alpert has been a freelancer producing radio pieces for media outlets including National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. She now works full-time at NPR affiliate, WBUR Boston. Her work and projects have been published in or on Bust, Barnard Magazine, The Washington Post, and Wonkette. Alpert graduated from Barnard College in 2003 and earned a master’s degree in history from Indiana University in 2008.
She was interviewed by Emily Woodbury, who will graduate from the University of Iowa in 2012 with journalism and political science degrees.
Emily Woodbury: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Jessica Alpert: It took me a long time to figure out that I wanted to get into journalism. I knew I wanted to tell stories but first I thought I wanted to help people with interesting stories (law school), then I decided to study stories (academia and grad school) and finally, I decided I wanted to TELL the stories myself. By the time I figured this out, I was 27 and pretty late into the game. But I think the journey towards that moment of discovery was helpful as it gave me so many different ways of looking at them world and of course–at stories.
EW: How do you define journalism today?
JA: Tough question! Journalism is the art of sharing unbiased information and news, as well as the act of captivating, educating, and enlightening readers/listeners/viewers through vivid and thoughtful storytelling.
EW: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
JA: Technology has everything to do with radio. It helps us to execute our craft but it also reminds us that the world is rapidly changing. Radio has to evolve just like newspapers and television. We’ve embraced online storytelling as well as continuing conversations online. Technology has also made news much FASTER. We must be on our toes in order to stay on top of evolving stories but we have to balance that desire with respect and understanding of the tools that get news out to people (twitter, facebook). It’s a whole new skill set.
EW: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
JA: As I mentioned in #3, journalists need to develop a keen eye for balance. In our desire to break stories first and be the most “connected” we must also be careful in our use of social media. Media organizations need policies and guidelines to make sure journalists know what is expected of them in terms of social media.
EW: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
JA: Improving. It’s still quite a man’s world and women have to remember that. We’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go in order to receive adequate and equal representation (both in term of who delivers the news and in terms of the news we deliver).
EW: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
JA: A huge role. Women need to work hard to receive equal representation–but they must also be good at what they do. I remember being asked to produce a story I knew NOTHING about. The old me would have said “I really don’t have much expertise in this area,” but the new me said “Sure.” It was a hard day but the truth is, I had the skills to figure out the story and I did a fine job. Women need to know when to push themselves, especially when it comes to taking on things/topics they may not be comfortable with.
EW: During your time working in Latin American and Caribbean countries, was there ever a time when being a woman worked in your favor? Can you recall a time when being a woman worked against you?
JA: Being a woman in Latin America is very different from being a woman in the U.S. When I lived in El Salvador, I had different restrictions on what I could do. I couldn’t go out alone after night. No joke. That limited my ability to check certain things out–unless I could recruit a male friend to tag-along. There was another situation where I was asked to sit in on a historical commission meeting for the government of El Salvador. I asked some tough questions and found out later that I had offended all of the men in the room. I was invited to sit in on the meeting–not participate. I find women have very different roles and expectations in Latin America. As for when it was helpful–I had some great experiences conducting interviews and felt I could places that perhaps I couldn’t have gone if I wasn’t a woman. Or perhaps it was only because I had done my work–and I enjoyed the interview process.
EW: Once you have spent a lot of time with an interviewee, what is your method for getting them to tell the best stories?
JA: Well you need to do your homework first. What is it that you want to get out of this interview? What is your end goal? I think the key is to be patient. You may not get what you want in five minutes–it may take an hour. Or if you have a ton of time, spend a day with your subject–spend a few days. As for radio, never turn off your recorder…from the moment you knock on the door until the moment you get back into your car and roll away. Keep that tape recording rolling!
EW: Why is oral storytelling so important? (Just in general or in comparison to print storytelling)
JA: Good writers can make stories come alive on paper but there’s nothing like hearing an incredible radio story. It transports you–it forces you to relocate emotionally and mentally. I find it to be the most powerful medium–still.
EW: As someone who lived in many different places and worked in different areas, what would you recommend to a young journalist who has spent most of her life in the Midwest?
JA: There are so many stories right where you are. Honestly, there’s no need to go far. When I was learning how to make radio, we were asked to create two stories–but they had to take place in Maine. I found stories everywhere. I would start by making great stories RIGHT where you are. Develop your skills. Then if you feel the desire to learn more, go to a different place. If you’re trying to get into radio, I would say interning at a smaller station (like WYSO in Yellow Springs, OH) would be a great idea since you’ll be tasked with doing EVERYTHING. And when you go to larger stations, interns are relegated to very specific roles. Think if interning as radio grad school. Take in as much as you can, learn as much as you can, drink in the knowledge of the people you’re around–and ask tons of questions.
EW: What was the biggest thing you took away from your time speaking with members of the Jewish community in El Salvador (and ones who relocated to the U.S. and Israel)?
JA: I learned that people don’t share their stories with each other. I kept a reporting blog (storylistener.blogspot.com) and each day (with the subject’s permission), posted excerpts from interviews. The whole community started reading the blog and incredibly, even though some had lived together for 50 years) they didn’t know very major details of their friend’s lives. That blew me away. I think it’s very telling and that is where journalism and storytelling can be so powerful. People started asking each other questions, questions they didn’t know they had until I started drawing connections for them.
EW: As a radio producer, where do you go (or what do you do) to find quality radio news programming?
JA: I turn on NPR. I listen to great shows like RadioLab, The Moth Radio Hour, and This American Life…I also listen to newer shows like Snap Judgment and State of the Re:Union. If you want to get into radio, these are your textbooks. You have to listen to them and be fluent in them. If not, you won’t be taken seriously by your colleagues. That’s the truth.
EW: How do you define objectivity? How do you determine when fairness and balance are getting in the way of what is real or true?
JA: This can sometimes be a challenge–especially when you’re starting out. First off, know that as a journalism your role in society does change. We’ve learned this recently during the Occupy protests. Various journalists have lost their jobs because they’ve joined the protests, etc. I was a pretty politically active person until I became a journalist. It doesn’t mean my opinions are gone or that I don’t care–it’s just that I have to compartmentalize my ideas. Objectivity is something we work at constantly. Sometimes it’s obvious (give both sides of a story the chance to explain themselves and give them a fair shake) but sometimes it can be more subtle. We were recently doing a story on gun control and it was obvious that people in our meeting had very strong opinions about guns. Even so, we had to present the entire story–without any bent. It’s something you work hard at doing–and sometimes that requires continuous fine-tuning. When you ask about “fairness and balance” I guess you’d have to define those terms for me. I find that if I’m doing my best to make sure all sides are represented and that people have the opportunity to share their thoughts, I’m doing my best to present the entire and complete story. People may disagree with the end product but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you haven’t provided a truthful story. That being said, you ALWAYS need an editor. ALWAYS.
EW: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like us to know about women in journalism?
JA: Basically, I think it’s important for young women to put themselves out there–but I think it’s also very important to learn how to take criticism. Even if it isn’t pleasant in the moment, develop a skill for using those critiques to your advantage. And accept criticism–don’t fight it. It’s NOT a sign of defeat–it’s a sign you’re trying and people want you to do better. That’s a big part of journalism. Criticism is there to help you write better/read better/think better.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.