Start Here / Never Stop Podcast: Jacqueline Charles ’94

Alumna Jacqueline Charles '94 is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Emmy Award-winning Caribbean Correspondent at The Miami Herald, a McClatchy-owned paper which circulates in greater Miami and is read throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Charles has reported full time on the Caribbean for the Herald since 2006.

Charles was born in the English-speaking Turks and Caicos to a Haitian mother and raised by her mother and her Cuban-American stepfather, spending part of her childhood in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. She began her journalism career with the Herald as a 14-year-old intern, and returned to the paper as a full-time journalist after graduating from Carolina in 1994 with her bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. She covers Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean.

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This is the Start Here / Never Stop podcast with Dean Susan King of the UNC School of Media and Journalism.

00:00:18 Dean Susan King: This is Susan King, the Dean of the School of Media and Journalism here at Chapel Hill. And with me, one of our great alums, Jacqueline Charles, class of 94, and welcome. 

00:00:30 Jacqueline Charles: Thank you for having me. 

00:00:32 King: I want to start on really a high note for this year, and then trace some of your movement to the top, but I want to stop at the top —or start at the top, I should say — because you had such an incredible year. Here it is the year 2018, Maria [Moors] Cabot prize, Columbia Journalism School, you take it, that was a big win.

00:00:55 Charles: It definitely was a big one, because I actually had applied a couple of times in the past and at one point became discouraged. Can you imagine be being on the front line of the biggest disaster in this hemisphere, which was the 2010, Haiti earthquake, and doing so many different stories about that huge disaster. And so I applied, I didn't get it. Applied a second time — and both times there were people that I knew who were judges — and finally, a friend of mine, actually a colleague, [NeNe?], who also was the winner. She said “you what, you should apply. So I said, Okay, I'll do it reluctantly. And I did it. And I got it. And interesting enough, when I went up there to receive the award, and I spoke to some of the judges. And I learned from someone — well, the reason why you didn't get in the past is because they thought you were too young. *laughs*

00:01:52 King: Well, I would say it a different way, you had covered some of the emergencies in Haiti. But now you really cover the story —the context, the history, culture. You are America's expert on this amazing country.

00:02:06 Charles: What exactly I mean, what I wanted to do after the earthquake, I remember my editor at the time saying, “okay, what next.” And when he said, but then he was talking about what other beat that I wanted to cover, he felt like maybe I had to sort of reached the end of that Haiti story. But I knew that the disaster was just one thing. But there's so many different stories to cover with this country — and that's why I enjoy covering this beat. Some days, I say, I have the best job in America, because I get to do it all: I get to be a feature writer, I get to be a health writer, I get to be a crime writer, I get to be a political writer. The stories are so diverse, and they're just not always about the disaster, or the political crisis at the moment, which I am currently dealing with. And so I think as a journalist, I mean, you're always looking, you know, tell the story that hasn't been told before, or to tell it in a new way. But you're also looking to be challenged, and you're always looking for diversity, variety — does not necessarily mean that you want to switch jobs — sometimes you like the job, you just need a break! *laughs* From the same ol’ same ol’ and oftentimes Haiti allows me to do that. I mean, the country is fascinating. And I just want readers you know, whether their readers in the U.S. or my readers in Haiti to really understand that this country isn't about the prices of the moment. But there's so many other rich stories to be told — interesting stories to be told.

00:03:38 King: So let's go to the beginning. You were 14 when you landed a job at your Miami newspaper, as an intern, but 14! You've been driven your whole life to tell stories.

00:03:51 Charles: I know that's so interesting, because journalism was not my first choice that you know, I am partly Haitian and like a lot of Haitian kids, your parents tell you you're going to go off to college, you're going to become a doctor or an engineer, but definitely somewhere in the sciences. But yes, I was 14, I was in a gifted program at Booker T.  Washington, which is an inner-city school, in Miami, junior high. And my teacher invited the executive editor of the Miami Herald and his wife to come talk to us. And so I started asking questions, he assumed that I was interested in journalism. I'm just nosy I was asking these different questions. And then he mentioned that there was a internship program that the Miami Herald had but you had to be 16. And I remember thinking, yes, good. I'm only 14 so I don't qualify. But John Bratcher who went on to be the editor at the Wall Street Journal, He actually called back that day, told my boss —my teacher — that they would have interviews, they were actually hiring a new round of interns. And she drove me down for my first ever job interview, and apparently, I made an impression because the next thing I know, they were offering me an internship at the Miami Herald while I was 14 years old.

00:05:07 King: And so that you really did find your passion, then? Was it been a love affair at different moments? Would you say? Did you know then? You were made for this world?

00:05:18 Charles: No, I knew then when I was in Carolina. But I have to tell you, I've always been interested in writing. I've always been interested in being a storyteller. I enjoy telling stories. — but honestly, it really wasn't until I was at Chapel Hill — and going through a class having a tough time and Chuck stone, the late Chuck Stone, I asked him to look at some of my  writings, my class assignments. And I valued his opinion, you know, I hadn't even taken a class with Chuck. But he was so revered. And I really wanted to hear what he had to say. And I remember it just as this it happened yesterday, he was in Lenoir Hall. He had a tray in his hand that was coming in and I said “Professor Stone, did you get a chance to look at the papers I gave you?” And he had them in the other hand, and he says, “Jacquie, I have them— I looked through them, Jacquie, you can write.”

00:06:18 King: *laughs*

00:06:19 Charles: It's amazing what three words, you know, can do for you. The impact that they could have, but “you can write.” I mean, hearing that from Professor Stone. It energized me. It gave me a certain kind of confidence. That really I was just ready to like, take this on. And I think you know what, forget about trying to be pre-med in journalism. I'm here, I'm at Chapel Hill. I enjoy telling stories. I've got an internship waiting for me this summer, a job when I graduate — It's time to buckle down and get serious about it — And that's really for me was the turning point, that moment when I really decided to just really embrace journalism 100 percent.  

00:07:01 King: And there was another professor, I've heard you talk about Harry Amana, who also pushed you to then be an intrepid reporter.

00:07:11 Charles: Exactly. Professor Amana. You know, he also challenged us and one of the stories I remember from him was coming back from one of my summer internships and him asking how did it go. And I was explaining to him an assignment that I had been given, which was to go knock on the door of a family that just suffered a huge tragedy, the son had just shot the father on the sidewalk outside of the house. And the father was a very well-known or respected pastor in this black community down in South Miami Dade County. And I was explaining to him how I just couldn't do it. I felt like I was infringing on people's privacy. And he challenged me, he says, “what do you mean, you couldn't do it?” You were a reporter, this is the assignment, you needed to go knock on that door, you don't know what would have met you on the other end, maybe they would not have answered, maybe they would have answered invited to in. Maybe they wanted to tell their story. Maybe they would have shut the door in your face. But you never know until you did it. So after that conversation, I have to tell you I’ve never left any door unknocked —no matter how difficult I think the assignment may be. Whatever I may personally think about having to go to a funeral or knock on someone's door. I do it because I have been amazed — time and time and again by people in moments of hardship and tragedy. It is amazing how sometimes people want they want to tell their story. They want somebody to hear their side of things. And so for that I've always been grateful to Professor Amana. And I also told this story during, you know, my graduation speech, my commencement speech, which was his, you know, never let them see you cry. You know, this is just about, you know, having suffered my first shock in journalism, I mean, in terms of the changes and believing that I was going to be promoted, and it didn't happen. And I reached out to him, and in, you know, and never let them see you cry, just about always having confidence in yourself and your ability and understanding the things that happen to you in this business — it's not always about you — whether they're good or bad. It's not always about you, people, you know, it's like chess pieces on a board that has to get moved and [FT?] full time equivalents and employees, you know, their needs, that are needed elsewhere as and other places, but you always have to remain confident in your ability. And then your love of this profession — and you just have to soldier on.

00:09:44 King: I want to ask you, you, of course for our graduation speaker, this 2019. And it was so well received. And I heard students say, “how does she deal with the physical danger?” So you've talked about pushing yourself because Harry Amana was there telling you to knock on the doors, but you've been in situations that can be scary. You've been there when things are violent — when it's just chaos after the earthquake, such — how did you prepare yourself to take on situations which you can't control, and which can be physically demanding?

00:10:13 Charles: I think first and foremost, you have to listen to yourself, you have to trust yourself, right? You have to listen to your instincts. And I am forever grateful for God for always guiding me — whenever I take on one of these trips — because from the moment you get on the plane till you arrive back, you don't know, you know what can happen. I have to tell you in a place like Haiti, for instance, I have a very good driver and I listened to him I don't, I don't argue I don't take unnecessary risks — I used to but I no longer do that — because a dead journalist is not a good journalist, you can't deliver the story. So you really have to ask yourself, you know, is this worth it? What may be lurking around the, you know, around the corner. Recently, I was in Jamaica, and I was in Jamaica on my own, I do not have my trusted Haitian driver with me. And Jamaica is a country that's also you know, somewhat volatile in some areas, you know, that it has an issue with violence. And so you have to just be smart. You know, you can't go you know, sort of flashing or thinking because you're a journalist, you're some superwoman of some superman. Sometimes you have to just try to be discreet. You know, take not trying to take shortcuts. I see that sometimes with you know, young journalists, they try to, you know, take a shortcut — and say, “I'll do this, I'll take this goal,” tab, here and there. No, and you always have to let people know you know, where you are, where you're going to go, who you're going to meet with, and again, listening to your gut, if your gut tells you that — that's not a good idea, you shouldn't do it, you shouldn't do it.

00:11:56 King: One of the things that's intriguing to me is that you've had your whole career since that internship when you were 14 at the Miami Herald. So you've had some stability, one institution, but the business has completely changed and your work has changed. You are a multimedia journalist now.

00:12:13 Charles: Indeed, I am. I mean, the work definitely has changed. I mean when I was at Carolina, I was a print journalist. That was my nature, I really wasn't interested in photography or radio. But today, for instance, I just did a radio interview. I've done video stories. I was in Jamaica two weeks ago, and I took photos — I film video because I said this is a story might be great. But to my son asked me for a photo, and they're going to ask me for a video to do it. I mean, that's the reality of the business. But I have to tell you, I do enjoy making videos, but I enjoy challenging myself to tell the story in a different format. Because the story sometimes is so — it's either so fascinating, or so long, if you can kill it all in front. So you have to find other avenues to do it. And I think that that would be my message to young people today is that you have to be open, you know, you can’t — I have a saying well like to say to folks like that to get out of your own way. You know, you just can't be so rigid. This is a business that is evolving. And one of the editors here said recently “you have to be prepared to fail and fail fast.” You know, that didn't work. Now, what's the next thing? So? Yes, it is. It's a little scary at times, it's a little uncertain. But the reality is, is that people need journalists they need what we do. They need our training, our skill sets, they need that our ability to observe — to basically, you know, the BS meter to figure out what people are not telling you the truth. All of those things are needed because people need information in order to make decisions about their lives.

00:14:02 King: You mentioned Booker T. Washington Middle School, that was a pretty important place for you. But I want to take the quote that I read that you said once that a teacher told you really “don't ever let your zip code define you.” What's that mean? How should we read that?

00:14:20 Charles: I am a product of Miami-Dade County, inner city schools. You know, I'm an immigrant, but I also attended inner city schools in Miami-Dade County. And my teachers have always told us don't allow your zip code the fact that you may live or grow up in a predominantly poor community or you come to you attend a school that doesn't have a lot of resources. You know, truly the sky is the limit. If you want to go to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you can go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — even if you've never seen Chapel Hill in your life. And you were from a neighborhood called Overtown. It's a pretty prominently black, you know, community in Miami-Dade County. This is what I tell students is that, you know, we don't as children, we don't choose where we live, right. We don't choose the the circumstances that bring our parents to a new country, or take them to a certain neighborhood and keep them there for whatever reason. But once you graduate from high school, the world really is an oyster, it is yours — it is to do what you want to do to go where you want to go. And you have to believe beyond that difficult.

00:15:38 King: And what did lure you to UNC? What became the beacon for you here?

00:15:44 Charles: You know, even though I told you that I fully embraced journalism 100% my you know, during my tenure at Carolina, the reality is, is that it was there was in my blood. So I'm interning at the you know — at the Miami Herald everybody's giving me pressure to apply for what was then the Knight-Ridder [Minority] scholarship and it was a scholarship in Knight-Ridder. [The predecessor to McClatchy?] will not depress us when they were two which owned the Miami Herald at the time and about 28 other newspapers. They have a scholarship for high school students are interested in journalism — So I won that scholarship. I became the second Knight Ridder scholar for the Miami Herald. So I knew that I wanted to go to school with a very good journalism program. And one of my mentors at the Miami Herald, [Tina Fisher?], also a student of Harry Amana. She basically you know, she was all Carolina, she was like Carolina blue when she was always talking about Chapel Hill. And so I started thinking about it, and I had all these options. But you know, one point I thought about Northwestern, I wanted to go to Georgetown, I was fully enrolled at the UF [University of Florida]. I had a scholarship to University of Miami, but I think you know what, Chapel Hill has a very good reputation for journalism. And I'm going to go to Carolina and plus on top of the fact it was 14 hours from Miami. —*laughs*— Break with my immigrant mother, but then no, but it really was the reputation. And the passion that I saw, like Carolina graduates, me know, when I got to Caroline, I fully understood that. Here's somebody that had been out of college, over five years, 10 years, and they were still passionate about Chapel Hill — and they were still drawn to it. And they were still trying on the lessons learned. And that actually defined to me today. I still draw on those lessons, whether it was you know, from [Professor Baldwin?] or, you know, [area monarch?]. I still look to those years at Carolina when I get myself in a certain line. So hopefully my journalism professor, that was the advice things would have given. I said, you know, a million times, but it truly was the best decision that I've made. And it truly was four best years of my life.

00:18:11 King: Well, we can't say anything more than that. I know. I'm very glad that you picked Chapel Hill. We are thrilled to have you as our grad. It was a wonderful graduation ceremony this year — 2019. And we're expecting more prizes, no pressure, more big stories. Thanks very much for joining us today Jacquie. Great conversation.

00:18:29 Charles: Thank you. Thank you for having me.