Journalism and the poet, in Jamaica

Some months ago, when I had somehow been persuaded to fly to Los Angeles to participate in a nice event at the USC Annenberg j-school, I learned about a unique project commissioned by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. And then I forgot about it. And then I remembered, and I searched for it, but I was unable to find it. Now I’ve got it, and I want to recommend it.

The title is Hope: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica. Normally I would not be very inclined to view this story project, and here’s why: As someone who teaches online journalism, I’m always viewing all kinds of multimedia journalism projects, and it seems to me there have been rather a lot of these about AIDS and HIV in various Caribbean countries. So, sadly enough, I just don’t feel very excited when I hear about what my categorizing human mind tends to label “another AIDS in the Caribbean story.”

Why is this story different? Let’s start with Kwame Dawes, a much-published poet who grew up in Jamaica (he now lives in South Carolina). The Pulitzer Center funded his travel to Jamaica in 2007 so that he could talk to people there living with HIV — and write poems about them.

Yeah. Poems.

Well, it’s not clear to me whether they knew they’d be getting poems, but hey, Dawes is a poet, so it shouldn’t have been too surprising that in the end, he wrote poems. The Pulitzer Center also sent a journalism team to report the story with video, audio, and still photography. In the online package, you’ll see right away how the poetry shaped the final product.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Jon Sawyer (founder of the Pulitzer Center and a longtime journalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) explained:

We thought it was very important to go beyond normal journalism, to — our goal at the Pulitzer Center is to engage people, particularly non-traditional audiences, young people who are not paying attention to newspapers or not subscribing, they’re not looking at broadcast television news, and we’re looking for ways to go to them.

In the same interview, Dawes said:

Well, the difference is that the commitment in the journalistic piece is one idea of truth, that is, the truth of fact and the truth of information and the truth of data. That is actually the commitment, the contract you make with the reader.

In the poem, that’s not your commitment. But if you look for the poems for an emotional truth, a kind of psychic truth, and a way in which the contradictions of experience are articulated through rhythm, and sound, and the beauty of language, and the quest for language and meaning, then that’s what you find in the poems. And that’s what I hope happens.

There’s a lot to like about the interface (designed by bluecadet interactive); segments load nice and fast on a home DSL connection; the audio is clean and beautiful; navigation is clear and relatively simple; the photographs complement and support the story.

This innovative approach to telling a story holds a lot of promise, I think, for helping journalists figure out how to communicate in new ways.

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