Why Journalism Still Matters: Interview with Alsy Acevedo

By: Yadira Y. Caro

If you ask journalists for recommendations on what career to choose, I bet not many would recommend their own: uncertain job security, new responsibilities added every week for smaller salaries. But many of them would also praise the lessons learned in their career: how to find and pitch an idea, searching beyond what is said, persistence.

Alsy Acevedo believes journalism is a discipline with lessons which can be applied anywhere. She started covering hard news at an early age producing a political radio show in Puerto Rico. She then became a staff writer for various newspapers in the US (El Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Ashville Citizen-Times). In 2012, she was named by Huffington Post as on of the Latino voices to follow on Twitter. Currently, she is a Senior Communications Strategist at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international humanitarian agency dedicated to disaster response, where she stills finds ways to uncover stories and bring the public’s attention to current issues.

How would you describe what you do?
I tell stories of people in distress, but I also tell ways of solving the issues that distress them.

When you talk about people in distress, what are some examples of that?People in distress because of war, because of natural disaster or because academics. I’ve been following the violence issues in Central America very closely. I’ve also worked in emergencies such as the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines providing communications support for that and also epidemics like the Ebola outbreak last year … They are very tough circumstances.

When you are describing communications support, what is it that you provide to them? Are you bringing awareness of any issues?
It’s everything: from telling the stories of the beneficiaries I meet overseas to doing social media around the issue, to promoting legislation or supporting legislation on a bill, setting interviews with experts or sometimes giving interviews myself on the issue, (also) speaking engagements with different audiences like students or community leaders that are interested in this subject. Certainly, more diverse than what I used to do in the newsroom.

You describe your current job is more diverse of what you did in journalism. How would you describe the similarities of both?
The fact that you can listen to people and understand story lines and trends and communicate what others say in a way that someone who has no idea of that reality can understand, that’s definitely a skill that I’ve applied in both. In journalism I covered the school board or a particular election or some obscure city code, so I would need to explain that so the person who has no idea of those topics could understand it. With people in distress and emergencies and war and epidemics, it’s more of the same because people understand that these realities take place but usually you are so detached, or is overseas, or it is something that is not immediate to us. It takes some creativity and some understanding of both realities in order to make sense for the general audience.

Even though you are based on Maryland you are dealing with people in Latin America and other parts of the world as well, trying to communicate that message, understanding their concerns. Are there any particular strategies you take on to ensure that you have conveyed the message?
I think its having open dialogue with colleagues overseas and the people who implement projects outside of the Unites States. For example, when I went Mexico recently, we were covering the violence issues and also the farmworkers rights issues. I had to explain to the beneficiaries and my colleagues overseas what about these issues was relevant for the audience in the United States because there are different takes on the same issue. So for one of the audience that I work with, who are a Catholic audience, so the faith aspect is very important. I was able to bring everyone together on the same page. So it’s a matter of finding similarities of what people are interested in.

Being a reporter working for El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel, did people want to put you in a certain coverage area because you are a Hispanic? Was there good integration in your experience?
In El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel Hispanic issues were definitely my beat. In North Carolina I had the health bit and I brought in the Hispanic beat myself because I thought it was relevant and nobody was doing it. I just started reporting in those stories as well. I think that in North Carolina I was more integrated to the general newsroom and in Orlando I was mostly covering Hispanic issues. That is tough place to release yourself from. A trend that I am seeing is Hispanic reporters who will not do the Hispanic beat no matter what and others who would, but it is very difficult (for them) to get out of there. The good thing though is that if you are in the beat its not going anywhere, it will be growing. If you are an expert then you have leverage and its something you can run with eventually. I think specialization is definitely a trend within the Hispanic market.

In your experience working in North Carolina, what is an example of a story that was about a Hispanic issue or maybe had a Hispanic angle that you brought up to the health coverage?
There were many Hispanics in western North Carolina but they were not in the paper, nobody spoke to them. So that is a way to integrate their voices in any story. One of the first stories that I did was actually about law enforcement and I did it in conjunction with one of my colleagues. They were talking about secure communities and this program that was implemented under that gave law enforcement the ability to ask on immigration status. We were covering a town hall so there was the sheriff, there were community leaders and there were like three Hispanics from western North Carolina who were Hispanic leaders and nobody talked to them. My colleague did not talked to them and I did. So when we got back to the room and I provided my quotes he was like ‘well, the story is to long’ and ‘I don’t think is necessary’ and I was like ‘I feel very strongly that it is necessary that they appear in this story’. We brought it to the editor and the editor did choose some of my quotes. It’s just a matter of shedding light to the reality that is already there and others don’t see it or don’t have the ways or the intention of covering it.

Do you see journalism as a career that is evolving? Or do you believe is a hype when people think that journalism is in decline?
I am optimistic so I think journalism will live forever and ever and will prevail (laughs). I think journalism is changing so rapidly and definitely it does not work as the business model that it used to be Papers are declining but other forms are evolving and sprouting so I think content is king. As long as you have very good content and you bring journalism ethic and integrity to your stories, you will be contributing to journalism even if you are not on a paper anymore.

What do you think makes a good journalist?
I think fairness makes a good journalist and objectivity. It is such a complex concept. I don’t think it necessarily exists as definition suggests but being fair and admit that you have you own biases. Also in that fairness is giving the voice and the credibility to the people that have the voice and the credibility.

For people who are in college right now, will you recommend them to go into the field?
Well, I should know better and tell people not to study journalism because it’s hard to find a job and make a living out of it. But that is not what I believe. I believe is a great career and it gives you the skills and provides you the openness and the courage and the curiosity to question the world. I have a lot of friends who are former journalists that are in classrooms or in communications with different organizations like I am or who are doing a completely different thing like running a business and knowing how to market it to the general public.

I think (journalism) is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the world and get out of your comfort zone and really put yourself out there. I think that is a real skill to have when you go to the real world. And maybe the real world is that there is no newsroom that will hire you because its shrinking, but the fact is that you will have skills to enrich other working in environments juts because you went into journalism school and know how to listen to people and ask really good questions.

Follow Alsy Acevedo on Twitter at @alsyacevedo

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