The self-proclaimed nerd had her heart set on a medical career. But after graduating at the top of her class at Miami Jackson High School in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood, Jacqueline Charles accepted a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Because she had been interning at The Miami Herald since she was 14 and the newspaper’s foundation was footing her college bill, Charles was obligated to begin what has turned into an award-winning, multi-year career at the publication, covering a variety of beats, including urban affairs and the Caribbean, including Haiti.
The only child of a Haitian mother, Charles was born in Grand Turk, the capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands at the bottom of the Bahamas chain. She was raised by her mother and Cuban-American stepfather and the family lived in Haiti for a year before immigrating to the United States when she was 7. Her connection to the impoverished Caribbean nation was strengthened through frequent childhood trips to visit her grandparents and other relatives.
“I am a child of the Caribbean,” she said in a recent interview.
Charles’ deep childhood links to Haiti are so strong that, to the befuddlement of her friends and colleagues, she vacations there regularly, preferring “living in the countryside, knowing what it’s like to not have electricity,” instead of staying in hotels.
Then came the devastating earthquake of January 2010 that struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands, rendering many homeless and devastating the capital Port-au-Prince. Charles was the logical choice for The Herald to dispatch as lead reporter on one of the world’s major natural catastrophes.
For her stellar coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) named Charles its Journalist of the Year, one of several honors she has received for her reporting from the scene of the disaster. She will accept the award at the NABJ’s annual convention in August in Philadelphia.
“Jacquie tells stories that are often overlooked. As a Miami native, I appreciate her commitment to enlightening the local community and a global audience. Jacquie’s work embodies NABJ’s mission, heart and soul,” NABJ President Kathy Y. Times said in a statement announcing the honor.
Charles’ Herald colleague, reporter Audra DS Burch, said she could not be more proud of her “friend and sister.”
“She’s a storyteller and what she has done over the years is to bring Haiti’s story back home,” Burch said in an interview. “She’s an intrepid reporter, she’s smart, she’s dogged. She has an energy about her that really comes through in her writing. And she’s humble.”
The NABJ award is especially significant for black women, Burch said.
“It’s remarkable and energizing that we’re now being recognized for our ability to tell stories and also to bring our particular perspective,” she said.
John Yearwood, World Editor of the Miami Herald, who co-chairs the NABJ World Affairs Task Force, nominated Charles for the award. “Jacquie has done more to focus the world’s
attention on the tragedies and triumphs of Haiti than any other reporter, sometimes at great personal risks. Haitians tell me all the time that they owe her a debt of gratitude. This recognition is well-deserved,” Yearwood said in an NABJ statement.
It is not the first time the NABJ has recognized Charles, selecting her for its International Reporter of the Year award in 2010. The Miami New Times newspaper named her Reporter of the Year. She also won the 2011 Paul Hansell Award, named in honor of a longtime Florida bureau chief for The Associated Press.
Charles is pleased with such recognition but it is not the reason that she does what she does. Her coverage of Haiti is personal. She wants readers to know what she knows about Haiti and she wants the country to remain in the forefront of the American psyche.
“I’m always striving to tell people something that they didn’t know,” she said.
Even more, she said, her commitment to telling an objective, balanced story guides her. But with such strong personal ties to Haiti, keeping her emotions in check is hard.
Long-time Herald photographer Patrick Farrell has accompanied Charles on at least nine “incredible, heart wrenching” trips to Haiti. The first took place in 2008 after a series of hurricanes pounded the country.
“I don’t think either one of us expected the amount of death that we saw,” Farrell said. “The flooded river had dragged these kids out of their homes. At one point, we saw 12 bodies. [Charles] was so cool under pressure, especially since these are her people. You could see the emotion was there but it wasn’t going to stop her from doing her job.”
Farrell said Charles’ commitment to writing an accurate, objective, well-sourced story has kept her up until 4 in the morning at times. He also says that her connections run the gamut from the people on the street to the former president.
“One night we walked into a restaurant. President Rene Preval was sitting at a table. He actually waved her over. Myself and the other reporter waited for 45 minutes,” Farrell said.
Farrell said that Charles remained cool even in the face of possible death on at least one occasion, when they were driving from Cabaret to Port-au-Prince.
“Water was coming down the mountain. The road disappeared for about half a mile. We decided to drive through because we wanted to hurry up and get back to get the story in the paper. The car stalled and started to shake and it felt like the car would flip over and roll into the ravine where all the water was gathered. And she just calmly turned around and said, ‘You know, I’ve never learned how to swim,’” Farrell said.
Farrell himself won a Pulitzer Prize – the most coveted journalism award – for photography in 2009. But, he said, it was “totally our Pulitzer, it was Jackie and I. It just happened to be because of the photographers. She just deserves it all. She’s amazing.”
Photo: A TEAR FOR HAITI: A cousin’s death in Haiti made Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles understand even more the pain of a nation. Here she is being interviewed for a Miami Herald video documentary, Nou Bouke (“We are Tired”), shot by Jose A. Iglesias of El Nuevo Herald. Photo used with permission of The Miami Herald.