Since wrapping up her Post-Graduate Reporting Fellowship with the Pulitzer Center in 2020, Muriel Alarcón has learned about navigating the American media landscape after a storied career in Chile.
Alarcón, who was a member of the Post-Graduate Reporting Fellows’ inaugural class, which first took off at the height of the pandemic, now thinks fondly back to her experience. She said it played a crucial role in making her the journalist she is today, and she is now a Fellow in the Joan Konner Program in the Journalism of Ideas at the Columbia Journalism School. Her latest fellowship project will look into clothing waste in the Atacama Desert in Chile and the long term impact of the fast fashion industry.
I sat down with her to talk (on Zoom, of course) about what she learned covering nutrition and food insecurity in the Latino community in New York during the pandemic, as well as what she’s up to now.
What led you to becoming a Post-Grad Reporting Fellow with the Pulitzer center back in 2020?
This program was launched during the hardest months of the pandemic, and I was just graduating from my MA in Columbia. I decided to apply because I really wanted to be covering the pandemic and particularly I was living at that time in New York, but I didn't belong to a news media outlet. I was so amazed by the reality that I started to report, but then I needed to find funds to continue living in New York while I was looking for a job after my studies, and that's how I heard about this fascinating program. I decided to apply and I was receiving this mentorship for a while, and also joining all these meetings with the group of the Pulitzer Center grantees. I was a part of a sort of media outlet when I was part of the Pulitzer Center, I felt like I was in a family, not alone anymore.
You were reporting on nutrition and food deserts in New York city’s Latino neighborhoods. What major takeaways did you gather from your reporting?
I started to hear these terrible stories about Latino people suffering, even in a greater way than other populations, other cultures because of their chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and also factors related to housing, essential work, the lack of, for example, medical insurance. And because of all those factors, they were the greatest victims in the city. But I also knew there were other stories, that the media was not telling: stories about how Latino communities were doing something to face this problem. Latinos were not only victims, but they were change agents, leading interesting initiatives, and I wanted to tell those stories. I found a very hopeful one, which is my project for the Pulitzer Center, about how this group of Latino leaders started to give food classes to Latino families to teach not only how to cook but also how to see in their food decisions a way of being better prepared to face not only COVID-19 but other illnesses. I not only wanted to tell this really important story, but also tried to work on how to build a new narrative or new framing regarding the Latino people in media outlets.
Looking back now, what was it like to be covering this topic during the early months of the pandemic?
Super exciting. Of course, sometimes, it was not the best case scenario to be covering by zoom or through the computer, but during the lock-down many amazing stories were happening online, such as this one. It reminded me—because I think I have always known that is why I am a journalist—that we are registering history in our profession. I feel super lucky about that. And to me to feel that we were facing these events that changed everything completely, and I was able to register it, how we become a new society—I felt tremendously challenged for the opportunity. Reality is the best school for journalists. And I felt responsible also in the way my work was portraying people. And that's why I felt that I had the commitment to not only tell one story but try to, with my work, show the diversity of actions being done, or the stories there are to tell about Latino people.
What did you learn from the fellowship?
I also learned how to navigate a world of media very different from the one I knew in Chile. During my fellowship, I joined as many talks as I could, learning everything from how to write a pitch to an editor via email to how many times it was best to follow up or give up. It was very valuable training for me, and especially essential to finding a space for myself as a Spanish-speaking journalist in New York during the pandemic, without editors who knew my work or publications in English with which I could introduce it. The Pulitzer Center gave me a push to be able to make my way as a freelancer. As you navigate in this world of pitches, you realize what type of phrases are more attractive to put in the subject of an email, what is the extension for a website story.
In this community, in the case of foreign journalists who start a career in the U.S., you share uncertainties, questions, and doubts. I came from a newsroom in Chile where it was not necessary to write a one-page pitch to gain an editor's attention. The stories were discussed in an editorial meeting and that was all. Being in a community that guides you, where you are able to ask all kinds of questions to reach out to editors and media outlets, being aware of all the skills you can bring them, is an excellent starting point to dream of ambitious stories.
What advice do you have for current Post-Grad Reporting Fellows?
Enjoy every single second of the possibility of sharing with this really great universe of journalists, communicators, photographers from everywhere. I think the possibility of exchanging ideas and of having our stories seen from different places, to have that opportunity to be explaining our stories to new audiences can give us so much power.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.