Paris Alston nearly studied abroad in Paris out of obligation to her first name. Instead, she was drawn to the SIT: Field Studies in Journalism and New Media program in Morocco because, journalist that she is, she had a sneaking feeling that whatever she had heard about Morocco was not the whole truth. “There was something about Morocco because it was a Middle Eastern Muslim country and the narrative we hear about countries in that region is not always the full scoop,” Alston said. “That was important to see for myself what was really going on there.” So in the spring semester of 2015, Alston, now 25, went to study in Morocco, a decision that would shape her career in public radio.
That desire to hear all sides of the story drives Alston’s work as a producer for the daily news program Radio Boston at WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. “I’m always thinking about what is the real voice we can include in the conversation,” she said.
A recent story she produced centered around a conflict between residents of Boston’s South End neighborhood and drug users who congregate around the nearby opioid addiction treatment clinics, giving the area the nickname “methadone mile.” Boston police’s controversial response to the tension was to perform a blitz “clean sweep” of the neighborhood and arrest people using drugs in public.
The difficult part of her job, Alston said, was including “voices from the drug user community, from the neighborhood, even from law enforcement and city government” to make sure all sides of the story were present in her reporting. She said she “continuously wrestles” with the best way to balance opposing viewpoints in her coverage of contentious issues in her community.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016, she took some time to travel and then worked for WGBH, another public radio station in Boston, before she took her current position at WBUR. Although she studied broadcast journalism and global studies in college, Alston says that over the course of her young career she has branched out past video and now considers herself a multimedia journalist.
Life in the newsroom is a whirlwind, and it suits Alston just fine. Her former colleague at WGBH Phillip Martin said of Alston, “she’s constantly conceptualizing, that is to say throwing out story ideas. A lot of people won’t do it because they’re afraid of being embarrassed or someone saying it’s a dumb idea but she doesn’t have that fear. She’ll test it.”
Alston admits that the breakneck pace of her job is sometimes frustrating. “There have been plenty of times when we have a whole show set and then it’s 2:00 and then all of a sudden there’s breaking news and the whole show is upended and we have to turn it around,” she said.
Alston’s commitment to listening for the quieter voices began in Morocco. Alston wanted to see Morocco from all sides. She wanted to get to know the stories she produced on a personal level, so she talked to everyone she could. She relished the unexpected moments of insight into the lives of people she met, whether it was the medina shopkeepers griping about the economy, her host brother pondering religion, or her host mother helping her understand the various roles of women in Moroccan society.
Because of how personal her reporting sometimes gets, Alston takes the trust that her sources place in her very seriously. In an ideal world, she said, she would break down the barrier between subject and observer to collaboratively produce a story. “A lot of people feel distrust of the media and that comes up every day here at my job when people are like, ‘No, I spoke to a news person once, and what came out was different than what I told them, and I don’t want to do it again,’” Alston said. She feels a responsibility to tell people’s stories the way they would want them told.
Alston’s advice to young journalists breaking into the field today? “Look for stories and sources in unlikely places.” Seeking out those unheard, “real” voices has provided some of the most rewarding experiences of her career.