Journalism’s goal of helping inform and educate people so that they can make better choices about their own lives is a task that’s become increasingly harder due to shuttered publications and an American president who has attempted to rebrand the press as “the enemy of the people.” In 2019, a Gallop poll revealed that only 41% of news consumers said they trust the media, down from 68% in 1972. And yet despite it all, journalists continue to ask the difficult questions. As noted by Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy during the 2020 announcement, it’s a career that often demands everything.
“During this season of unprecedented uncertainty, one thing we know for sure is that journalism never stops,” she said. “And much like our courageous first responders and front line health care workers, journalists are running toward the fire.”
That idea of running toward the fire can take many different forms. From the politics that drive the world, to the way we travel through it, to the identities we claim, to how we experience pleasure and examine the big ideas—everything seems to be up for debate
To celebrate their contributions made by journalists, we gathered five extraordinarily women in the field to discuss how they continue to bring us the most important stories.
The White House Warrior: Yamiche Alcindor
In 1955, Emmett Till was lynched at just 14-years-old. As a teenager, Yamiche Alcindor learned about his death, and the posthumous civil rights icon became the force that inspired her to become a journalist.
“His mother had an open casket that showed the world his disfigured face and that was what really changed everything for me,” Alcindor recalls. “I immediately wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be like the people who had taken pictures of the casket and I wanted to bring the hardships of African Americans to the public. And I wanted to be a professional witness, and that’s what I did.”
Now in her thirties, that promise has led Alcindor to cover the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina for USA Today, The New York Times, and NBC.it
“I thought covering civil rights in the century that I was doing it in was going be about workplace issues and about affirmative action and school,” she says. “But really it’s still about black people trying to survive, and people taking people’s lives.”
More recently, Alcindor joined the White House Press Corps on behalf of ‘PBS News Hour.’ Although the president has called her lines of inquiry “nasty,” Alcindor is unfazed by his commentary. Asking difficult questions is part of the job.
On the power of diversity
On staying focused while working in the public eye
“I’ve been focused on my task when I’m at the White House, in those now highly watched briefings, by focusing on the fact that I’m there because my job is in the Constitution. And because people want answers from this administration. And because politicians need to be held accountable when they’re doing things right, and when they’re doing things wrong. So, to me, it’s always about who are the people that might never make it to the White House, but who have questions and need those questions answered. I think about that every day when I walk into the White House.”
On decompressing after a hard day
“I’m lucky that I got married about two years ago, so I have a husband I really love. Every day so I am really grateful that I have the kind of love in my life, because that is a way for me to vent and for me to be vulnerable and just to be human with someone else, especially in the middle of the pandemic where so many people are lonely at home. I should add to that, the fact that I have an amazing group of friends and an amazing family that is constantly checking on me. And then I’m in a sorority — I’m an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated member, and my sorority sisters are just like a constant place where I can go and talk to people. It’s so incredibly important to take care of your mental health, and to really take some time to take care of yourself. Even after the pandemic, I think hopefully what we learn from them and how much family and people and connections really matter, and also how much all of you need from time to time.”
The Traveler: Jada Yuan
COURTESY OF JADA YUAN
By the time Jada Yuan took to the road in 2018 as The New York Times’ inaugural 52 Places Traveler, she had already established herself as a notable celebrity profiler at New York Magazine. And then the gig, where she wrote about 52 places in 52 locations across the world in 52 weeks, nudged her ambitions in a different direction.
Now as a political features writer for The Washington Post Yuan’s beat has shifted yet again. But between reporting from the presidential campaign trail to covering the COVID-19 crisis in New York, Yuan’s motion continues to be a constant. But as she’s discovered, regardless of context, some skills always translate.
Dealing with doubt
“I have various coping mechanisms and I’m trying to rely less on other people like when I was traveling around for 52 Places. I had certain people that I would call, and I would talk about a story with them, or I would cry on the phone. Now I just sort of try to remember that I’ve done it before. Because I think sometimes I just have to sort of remind myself that you went around the world by yourself — you can do this. It was extraordinarily high that I was traveling to 52 new places in less than a year, and filing stories, learning how to do photography, and learning how to do Instagram which I still don’t do that much anymore. But at the same time, I wasn’t having to figure out where my next paycheck was coming from.”
How 52 Places prepared her for life on the campaign trail
“The beginning of this year was a lot of campaign reporting stuff, and the logistical part of it was so new and exciting to me. Getting less than 24-hours notice that you have to get on a campaign trail with someone, and that person is going to just keep moving and you have to follow them like across a state you don’t know. Where do you rent your car? Where do you return it? Where do you fly, and where do you fly out? Where do you stay every night? I felt like just such a newbie on that level…I think what 52 Places did for me was just gave me this competence that, however impossible the thing in front of you seems, it’s almost always doable.”
On the power of women helping other women
“Ava DuVernay is someone who I’ve just sort of admired and she has stayed real and checked in with me every, like, four years since I like went out to profile her early on. She was coming out with Selma and I was writing a profile for her for New York Magazine. We spent two days together. She gave me so much access and we had an amazing time… this was back before I recorded things on my phone. I used a little digital tape recorder and, on my way back, I lost my purse in the airport, including the entire set of interviews. Two full days with Ava. No one is going to ever return a digital tape recorder you left in Chicago. I basically just called her up and I was so scared to tell her what happened because she had no time — like, she was putting together a movie. She called me back and was like, ‘I have about half an hour. Let’s go.’ And then a half an hour later, I got another call. And she just kept calling me back. It was a lesson in what to do. Yeah, just admit your mistake. And then, be a human about it and hope the person you’re dealing with is a human too. But it was just the kind of kindness that someone can show you, even when they’re coming from a position of power and you f—-d up.”
Lightning Rod: Laurie Penny
Laurie Penny doesn’t necessarily chase controversy. But after contributing to the Guardian Option (where she called out everything from homophobia to carbon-shaming women who want children), and advocating for women and queer rights across The New York Times, Salon, Vice, Buzzfeed, she’s gained her a fair share of both detractors and support. (In 2012 she was even named “55th most influential left-winger in Britain” by The Daily Telegraph.) It’s a that blunt devil-may-care honesty, combined with a fair share of humor, that informed 2017 collection Bitch Doctrine, and one that drives her daily musings on Twitter.
Most recently, Penny has relocated to Los Angeles, flexing her creative side with writing gigs on Carnival Row, The Nevers, and The Haunting, while continuing to write features for Wired.
“Every time I worry that I’m not meant to be here, in Hollywood, I think about how many of those spineless sexist keyboard warriors over the years would be spitting mad that I’m getting to do this amazing job,” she jokes of her new role. “That gets me up in the morning.”
On her most surprising story
“Just before I moved to LA, I was sent to cover a cryptocurrency cruise — knowing almost nothing about Bitcoin beforehand, but knowing a little too much about tech-libertarians and toxic “brogrammers” for comfort. I ended up on a boat for six days with two hundred Eastern European models and a bunch of shady crypto-mobsters. It was politically interesting and existentially horrifying—like the party at the end of the world.”
On dealing with internet trolls
“I’ve been dealing with sustained campaigns of online abuse from misogynists and right-wing nut jobs since my early twenties, when my writing first began to get known. There’s no magic trick for dealing with it. I’m still carrying a lot of trauma from the worst years. What’s even worse is when that’s combined with call outs from your own side—some of which have been legitimate over the years as I’ve grown up in the corner of the public eye. You can’t just shut yourself down to criticism. You have to find a way to protect yourself emotionally while staying open to change. As far as the trolls go, the best way to win is simply to stay in the game. As a female writer, there’s no way you can change yourself to protect yourself from abuse and harassment without disappearing entirely, or destroying your own creativity, which is what they want. They just want you to shut up and slink away—and if you’re well-known, they want to make an example of you, so other women and queer people think twice about putting their work out there. So, the only thing you can do is stand your ground, keep on doing the work, and find some way to have fun along the way.”
On working as a screenwriter
“For me, I’ve transitioned into screenwriting, while working on my next book and long-form columns for Wired magazine and other outlets. Screenwriting has made me a better journalist, and vice versa—but I’m also enjoying being in an industry where I’m not as well known, where I get to prove myself again, and where I’m paid to make up stories and bring my experience in journalism and activism to the table. Every time I worry that I’m not meant to be here, in Hollywood, I think about how many of those spineless sexist keyboard warriors over the years would be spitting mad that I’m getting to do this amazing job. That gets me up in the morning.”
The Long-Form Investigator: Lulu Miller
It all starts with a man who loved fish. Or rather — loved discovering them. But to boil down Lulu Miller’s debut non-fiction book, to simplify the story of David Starr Jordan, who cataloged a large portion of the world’s fish population, is to miss the point entirely. Why Fish Don’t Exist is an exploration of ideas, and beauty in chaos — a storytelling technique honed during her time as the co-founder of Invisibilia, an NPR show that couples science and larger narrative ideas.
During her time on the NPR show, Miller investigated “the invisible forces that control human behavior,” a show mandate that found her, among other immersive stories, meeting a blind man who used echolocation to navigate, and investigating her own fear of snakes. Many times, discoveries made during reporting would take her by surprise, and the occurrence repeated itself when she began writing what became Why Fish Don’t Exist.Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of LifeSimon & Schusteramazon.com
“I started writing this thing that I still thought was an essay,” she reveals. “And then I looked up from it, and it had become like 34 pages single-spaced. I was just like, ‘Oh shoot, I don’t even feel anywhere near done. This might be a book — this quirky, almost dark fairy tale that happens to be true.’”
On the joy of interviews
“The most fun part is just the search. I really think of every interview as this little hunt where, for an hour or so, it’s my job to have my ears pricked, and just notice everything they’re throwing out and keep asking and seeing where it leads. Beware of the ‘of course.’ Like, if someone’s telling me something and I start to think, ‘Oh, of course’ — you know like, “of course you’d be heartbroken after a relationship ended” or whatever — instead of thinking, ‘of course,’ ask ‘Why?’ And just remember that, while there is shared experience, you might start to get to the really interesting things when you force someone to articulate why they feel something or why they’re saying something.”
On dealing with failure
“My wife is a psychologist and she talks about the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt can be really helpful because there’s motion behind it. Okay, you feel bad about a thing, so do a thing, like make amends, call the person. Too much guilt can be bad, but shame is just this stagnant thing that you stew in. Guilt has some fire under it. It makes you move, and shame is just a well with the lid closed. I do feel like if I were to look back at stuff I made, I would just fall into the well of shame. Hate my voice, or hate how I did that. I find more energy from looking forward.”
On finding herself as part of the story
“I inherently want to put less of myself in, and then it often creeps in. I feel like the stories I’m most proud of, there’s very little me in them and it’s just truly an act of reporting and observation. I feel a weird shame or guilt about when I put too much of myself in, and yet I also know that those are some of the ones that have really connected with people. And I have to say as a listener, or a reader, I love first-person stuff. I think I’m trying to always use as little of myself as possible, and yet at the same time like I am, technically just barely a millennial, so me putting in a little is probably still a lot for someone of an older generation. But I don’t know, it’s like salt. I don’t want to use too much. And yet at the same time, I love salty things.
The on-air storyteller: Bim Adewunmi
It’s not often one can draw a straight line between childhood ambitions and career. But in the years since she and her sister hosted a fake radio station under their dining room table (“Really and truly one of the apexes of my career!”), Bim Adewunmi has transitioned from culture writer for The Guardian and Buzzfeed to producing for radio vanguard, This American Life.
“I get to work with just everyone on This American Life, and, you know, it feels kind of Oscar confessional moment— ‘it’s just an honor to be nominated,’” she says. “But you look around the room and you think, gosh, everyone here is so accomplished. I’m actually learning so much.”
In addition to producing for the NPR staple (she points to “You Can’t Go Your Own Way” the story of a woman in an abusive relationship, presented as a “choose your own adventure” tale, as a recent story she’s recently proud of), Adewunmi also holds time for her Slate-hosted podcast Thirst Aid Kit, where she and writer/co-host Nichole Perkins run-down celebrity obsessions. Each episode is marked by an in-depth discussion of an actor or musican’s career. (Previous subjects have included Penn Badgley, Dan Levy, and Wyatt Cenac) The twist? While each episode does feature a “fanfic war” where both Adewunmi and Perkins each present a 2-minte “drabble” about the featured subject, the majority of the show is a piece of feminist-driven journalism experiment, aimed at providing a safe space for allowing listeners to find someone attractive,both for the way they look and the choices they make. As Adewunmi explains it, women contain the masses — so why shouldn’t her career?
On her This American Life interview
“I’m Nigerian, and Nigerians do not lack in any kind of self-confidence. We very much believe we are the s–t, and we act accordingly. Even when the evidence is to the contrary. But when I got the email I was kind of shaken a bit because I was like ‘Oh my god this is like an institution…Sure, go in there!’ And I think also going in there with a plan of just like, I will either get this job or I won’t. Which is how I make all my decisions. I look at every single decision that I have to make purely 50/50. And so, when I was going to the interview I thought to myself, ‘All right, you’re either gonna ace this, and they’re going to be impressed with you and you’re going to be impressed with them and you’re going to think “God this is a great match,” or you’re going to walk away thinking, “Yeah, that wasn’t gonna work for me, or whatever.”’ So, I thought just go into the interview, just enjoy yourself and take a moment to gawk at the inside of This American Life.”
On her proudest moment at the show
“ I suppose the thing that I’m proudest of so far in the year that I’ve been at This American Life is that I’m really happy that I hosted the show. In January, Ira Glass graciously ceded the chair and was like ‘hey you should do this.’ I pitched the idea for ‘The Show of Delights,’ because I read the Ross Gay book and fell in love completely. And of course, I was also very happy to be a British person hosting This American Life and say ‘WBE Zed’ instead of ‘WBEZ Chicago.’ We’re getting the ‘zeds’ in there!”
On her podcast, Thirst Aid Kit
“If you think about the ways in which a lot of the conversations around desire are told, it’s kind of like women are so mysterious and they do all these weird things and who can say what’s in the heart of a woman — no one knows what do they want. Well, if you look around the literature, the written and the unwritten things tell you exactly what women want…We have a lot of listeners who are asexual, bisexual, gay, straight, we have all sorts of people and different identities joining in. And one of the things that Nicole and I talk a lot about and I’m really surprised and gratified by is the number of people who have been survivors of sexual assault or abuse who tell us they listen to the show, and for them, it presents a sort of safe and happy place for them to kind of even consider the idea of intimacy again.”