Even as a young girl from a traditional Indian, Pakistani Muslim family, she seemed destined to become a voice for the voiceless. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants who never attended college, Kiran Alvi, 30, lived a simple life in Southern California as a child. Now she is the producer of Up Front at Al-Jazeera English in Washington, DC, a current affairs program which interviews diplomats, foreign ministers and heads of state.
Her life was fairly safe and secure growing up in a large extended family. In the multicultural matrix of Southern California, they did not seem unusual. Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. She was in the eighth grade at the time. By the end of the day, when people had a grasp on what was happening, she was approached by a close friend and asked if her family supported the attacks. She was shocked that anyone who knew her would ask such a thing and she knew it was because she was Muslim.
“My extended family outside of California started telling me don’t tell people you’re Muslim, and put an American flag on your car,” she said. “The constant awareness whenever there is an attack somewhere, oh my God was it a Muslim?” She added, “I don’t think there’s anything else that has happened in my life that really affected my self-awareness, my identity to both you know to the public and to myself like it was just so monumental it’s hard to compare anything to that really."
In spite of negative comments she receives about being Muslim, she said no one can make her feel like she doesn’t belong here because you can’t get someone to believe something that’s not true.
“When you see videos of kids in school who are being bullied because of their background and being attacked for it, I’m sure those kids will grow up feeling like they don’t belong here. I didn’t have that. I had a pretty easy comfortable upbringing especially when I was a kid. Yah, I guess I’m lucky in that regard,” she said.
Having had such a supportive, caring environment growing up, it helped her to form a strong sense of self which would be necessary to better withstand the racial and cultural onslaughts which have become commonplace in our society and has allowed her to become a voice for others who have no support.
Her supportive upbringing also gave her the confidence to consider different career options. She had considered the medical field, like many of her relatives, but felt it was too restrictive. She really liked fashion and wanted to be a designer for awhile. She also considered becoming an entertainment reporter or a physicist. She decided on journalism when someone in an English class told her she was good at public speaking.
She studied journalism at MT. SAC where she worked on the Mountaineer newspaper as a features editor. Professor of Journalism Toni Albertson remembered Alvi fondly.
“Kiran is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met, and one of the most memorable students," Albertson said. “I am honored that we have become friends since her graduation and I value that friendship.” She added that Kiran is always available to provide feedback to her students, and to even contribute as an alumni to the student media.
Alvi, who transferred from Mt. SAC to attend USC Annenberg where she received a bachelor’s degree, and after, a master’s degree from Columbia School of Journalism, became involved in one of the most rewarding stories she has covered, which validated journalism as her career choice. She and another student were assigned to cover a story in Compton, in Los Angeles County. A woman had been shot outside a convenience store and they went to cover how the police were handling the case. However, the police weren’t handling it. The students found that the police had a very negative attitude about the shooting. There were certain cases they didn’t care about and didn’t deal with, so the story became about how the police weren’t handling the case.
It became controversial when the police claimed that the students were lying. For a while, no one believed them but their professor. The police eventually contacted the victim’s mother who was very appreciative because, if the students hadn’t inquired, there never would have been an investigation into the shooting.
“It was great; it was knowing that you’re doing something that actually had a positive effect on someone’s life, someone that they cared about. And I think that’s what journalism, a lot of the time has the power of doing. It’s giving a voice to the people who wouldn’t have a voice otherwise,” she said. “It took two student reporters who were covering this for a class assignment to get them to care, and I’ll always carry that with me."
It was also one of the hardest assignments she’s done. Stories can be challenging for different reasons depending on a reporters experience or the nature of the subject matter; however, this situation was different. The Compton Police Department was attacking her integrity and her reporting on the one hand and the student news organization questioned her capabilities and whether the reports were exaggerated.
“We aren’t journalists with a name for ourselves; we were just students. And all we could say was yes, this is how it was recorded and for a moment we had no one believing us except for our instructor,” she said.
She gives credit to reporters in the field who constantly have their integrity questioned.
“Especially in the current political climate where I think journalists are portrayed as liars and fake news. It’s tough,” she said.
Another incident, one of many in which she was involved in, was last February when Up Front interviewed the Congolese communications minister. There were a lot of protests, unrest, and allegations of abuses after the elections. People were being killed in the streets and the government either denied it or defended it. Concerning the interview, she said, “We posted it online. It was amazing how many people, Congolese people were commenting on the report that we shared saying thank you so much for you know pushing against this guy holding him to account. Nobody cares about what is happening here.” “It just again reinforced the idea that holding people in positions of power to account is what journalism is supposed to be about."
When not working on news stories, she enjoys reading science to escape, watching a good movie with friends and wishes she played a musical instrument. However, she doesn’t need a lot of entertainment because she said, “I love going to work every day. I love my team.”
She decided early on she did not like working in front of the camera. She enjoys producing and working on different projects every week. She explained:
“The way that my show is, we cover basically current events around the world and so this week I’m focused on Yemen and next week I’m focused on Afghanistan and the UK. Every week it’s something else. You know I get to learn about the whole world and it’s my job and I love that."
She gave some practical advice for those just starting out in the field of journalism. She said the most important thing for a reporter is to understand the issues from the subject’s perspective. Before you give voice to the voiceless, you must first understand their perspective.
“It’s hard living in the U.S. because what we read is focused on the western perspective even if you cover the war in Iraq … It’s covered without even knowing it’s from an American perspective,” she said. “Cut yourself off from everything you’ve known and try to understand everything from a fresh vantage point." She added, “If reporters would do this, she feels people would be informed in ways that are more productive.”
On the other hand, she said that everyone has a bias, so she questioned the notion of a reporter being objective.
“And I say this for example, a Palestinian shouldn’t be covering the Palestinian Israeli conflict because they’re going to be biased. Does that mean that you know that a Jewish reporter wouldn’t be biased covering it? But I think that when you recognize that everyone has a bias that you will always have a bias, I think that helps someone get past the rut they’re in or the way they’re doing any story because you know it’s biased. Never think that you’re above it. Just try to be mindful of it.”