Yamiche Alcindor, PBS NewsHour White House correspondent, spoke to the Tufts community on Sept. 29, in the second virtual Civic Life Lunch hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.
Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College, shared opening remarks, and Julie Dobrow, senior fellow for media and civic engagement at Tisch College, introduced Alcindor and the moderator for the event, Neal Shapiro, CEO of WNET, the largest public media station in the country.
Shapiro began the conversation by asking Alcindor about the difficulties of being a White House correspondent.
Alcindor recognized the drastic changes reporting has undergone during the COVID-19 pandemic and her decision to turn to the foundations of journalism while maintaining accountability. She also addressed the significance of her role, especially with the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
“It’s no secret that President Trump has struggled more with support with African American voters … but there are still a lot of African Americans looking at the Biden/Harris ticket and saying: What exactly are your plans for me?” Alcindor said. “I’ve been really focusing on making sure that my role is to bring all of those questions and all of that meaningfulness and resolve to the job.”
She also explained the importance of civil rights in shaping her interest in journalism. She noted the impact of Emmett Till’s mother placing her son’s disfigured face in an open casket on the cover of a magazine in connection to her understanding of America.
“It solidified for me that America has real deep flaws, and that we need to be focused on those flaws … and … on understanding what it means that we say we are going to treat everyone equally but don’t,” Alcindor said.
In response to Shapiro’s question on working with a president who singles out reporters, Alcindor discussed her greater duty as a journalist.
“When I think about my back and forth with the president, because I never get personal, because I really do think that there [are] so many Americans that are vulnerable and are scared, and that have lost their jobs, that deserve someone that is there to be their representative,” she said.
After Shapiro asked about the sense of comradery among the White House press corps in the current administration, Alcindor mentioned that journalists are working together to seek the truth.
“I think that we are all one supporting each other, but also, we understand that doing this job in 2020 is really chronicling life and death and asking questions that are literally life and death for so many Americans,” Alcindor said.
Shapiro also asked about the challenges a reporter faces when the president and his supporters fail to agree on the scientific facts regarding COVID-19.
“I’m constantly having to explain to people that this president is saying two different things but the scientists are saying we should take this very, very seriously,” Alcindor said. “I hope that in our reporting, that it comes off not as adversarial, but that we are trying to keep people safe.”
Shapiro asked Alcindor if she feels the need to constantly present counter-evidence for what the president says. She responded by indicating that part of journalism is to present all evidence.
“The president constantly is beating up on mail-in voting, constantly saying it’s full of fraud and I constantly, every single time I record it, say he has no evidence,” Alcindor said. “We asked the White House constantly for evidence because I think if there was evidence for mass voter fraud, I would want to report on it.”
The webinar then opened to questions from attendees. One student questioned how Alcindor can remain objective, even when one of the arguments is untrue or racist.
Alcindor drew attention to the importance of that question for current journalists. She emphasized the phrasing in how she reports.
“I think the way I deal with objectivity is to be fair but not to give false equivalences, so when I report on climate change, I don’t say, well, one person thinks it’s not true and the other thinks it is. What I say is the overwhelming science shows that the climate is changing,” Alcindor said.
Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center, asked Alcindor if she could share with students how she has maintained hope in the current environment.
“I think I maintain that sense by taking care of myself and by naming when I’m not having a good day,” Alcindor said. “If you don’t allow yourself to just feel your feelings … you will eventually have to confront them and it will be in a way that might lead to a nervous breakdown.”