Translating Public Health into Media

The Envision conference revealed an ongoing disconnect between policy wonks and storytellers.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Jina Moore

April 12, 2013

Also published at Columbia Journalism Review

It’s 10am, and we’re talking about death. Deaths from disease and neglect—deaths the world could prevent, if only for… Name the disease, and someone in this room will know what it takes to stop it.

The room is full of advocates and policy makers and United Nations types. They want to inspire (or in some cases, guilt) the 250 or so filmmakers, other storytellers, and public health purveyors gathered Wednesday night and Thursday into bringing global health stories to the masses. The event is the fifth “Envision” conference, convened by the UN’s Department of Public Information, the Independent Film Project, and Social Good Summit Partners and sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

These days, there’s lots of interest among the do-gooding world—nonprofits or NGOs, private foundations and public agencies—in how to use media. Partners in Health, to name just one big public health player, regularly uses videos and storytelling in its fundraising campaigns and on its website. So Envision’s focus on getting storytellers to understand and raise awareness about public health issues isn’t exactly new. The question is, is it useful?

At one point during the program, experts lobbed story ideas into a room of upwards of 100 filmmakers. The pitches were wobbly but the intentions were good, and promising nuggets crystallized into sound bites, at least in this journalist’s mind. Here’s one: Did you know there’s more people over 65 in the world today than there ever have been, ever?

I’m not entirely sure how to make that into a story, and neither was Alexandre Kalache, former head of ageing and life course programs at the World Health Organization, who threw that fun fact our way. But he gave it his best shot: He showed us a picture of a glamorous woman in a full gown, paired with the warm smile of an elderly lady. “I can only remind you,” he said, “that the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ is now 75.”

Here’s the thing about media: Everyone knows it’s powerful. The crowd was still buzzing about last night’s opening film, Blood Brother, about “a disenchanted young American drifting through India” (says the film’s website) and helping HIV orphans. We flicked tears from our eyes during Open Heart, a short documentary about Rwandan girls who get free cardiac surgery in the Salam Heart Center in Sudan. We all know that people connect to stories, and we all felt that connection at Envision.

But the story pitchers and the story makers don’t talk about stories the same way. When Eric Sawyer, the civil society partnership advisor for UNAIDS, showed several slides of AIDS statistics, someone asked him for a “face” for the problems he’d numbered. When Kalache finished his spiel on the importance of aging issues, Fisher Stevens, the Oscar-winning director who moderated the pitch session, asked him bluntly, “How would you envision a film?” Kalache said he wanted to “listen to the voices of other people and see what we can enact in terms of policies on the ground.” Sawyer didn’t bother much with story vision; he went straight to finger-wagging about AIDS transmission and treatment: “You need to help us get that message out to the public or we’ll never get this under control.”

It wasn’t a coincidence, I don’t think, the Sawyer didn’t know how to tell storytellers a story. It’s not a coincidence, either, that the officials and NGO staffers whom filmmaker Lisa Russell talks to in developing countries don’t know how to talk to artists. Russell spoke at Envision about the “parallel conversations” happening in the development and arts worlds. Later, she told me more simply, “Those worlds don’t talk to each other.” Russell recounted the time she brought a hip-hop artist from Sierra Leone to a high-level panel about youth and war. The head of a UN agency asked him what kind of music he performed. When the musician said hip-hop, Russell recalled, “the UN official laughed.”

Russell attributed that to the official’s discomfort or fear, but the point was undeniable: “What he doesn’t realize is that this particular artist is one of the top-selling artists in Sierra Leone. When he goes home and does performances, he’s selling out 75,000-person stadiums. The impact he has on the community level is outstanding, and nobody is talking to him.”

Russell’s missionaries of message aren’t journalists—they’re entertainers—but there seems to be misunderstanding between the people who craft message and those they want to amplify it. Robin Smalley, founder of the HIV prevention organization Mothers 2 Mothers, told me she takes a page out of the playbook of a producer who’s worked onLaw and Order and on ER, and who’s also a pediatrician. “He’s always interested in seeing if, in the context of a good story, there is something healthy he can give,” she said.

That’s a mission that those who tell fictional stories can imagine: If the “something healthy” is a subtle message about protecting yourself from HIV transmission, Smalley suggests, include a two-second shot of condoms on the nightstand in the bodice-ripping montage of the sex scenes that lock viewers to their screens.

But journalists can’t make up condoms on the nightstand. In fact, as I told Smalley, journalists wouldn’t see themselves as entertainers. But Smalley pushed back, with what might have been the most useful message of the entire day: “The news, just by being interested in something, can actually lead rather than follow.” Smalley said she’s working in Swaziland on a day of public celebration of lowering child mortality rates. On that story, the big networks haven’t bit, she said. “But if I said to Fox News, ‘A thousand five year olds are going to get massacred in June,’ boy, they’d all be there.”

Concurrent to the panels, storyteller Lydia Joyner ran an “interactive” storytelling “experience,” designed to evoke emotions in participants that connected to her personal story of the foster care system. At the end of a few participatory theater-style “scenes,” Joyner spread out copies of her foster care records. She’d been in foster care with her cousin, and when they were placed in separate homes, they kept in touch through a diary. Later, her cousin was murdered.

“Those documents are very black and white, very factual,” she said, encircled by social workers’ notes that called her hostile, troubled, uncooperative. “There’s nothing in there about these two little girls who were best friends.”

Joyner’s storytelling experiment wasn’t meant to be journalism, but it certainly exposed one of journalism’s biggest weaknesses, the one it seemed to me the event was designed to address: the problem of official records, and their handmaidens, statistics.

Nothing much happened at Envision that gives storytellers tools to overcome the problem of official records, but the conversations it broached reminded me of another public health “message,” though filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti would cringe to hear her documentary, deepsouth, referred to in that way. The hourlong, verite-style nonfiction film, which is part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on June 13-23, chronicles the story of Josh, a young, gay and HIV-positive man trying to find family; of Monica and Tammy, who run a retreat for HIV-positive people in Louisiana; and of Kathie Heirs, from AIDS Alabama, who must be the world’s most tireless and devoted advocate.

There are no experts, no statistics, and no “messaging” in Biagiotti’s film. In fact, she wouldn’t even call it “a film about HIV.”

“HIV was really the setting of deepsouth, not the topic or the issue,” she told me. “And audiences have been responding to the film’s universal themes: isolation, inertia, family, home.”

Biagiotti is onto something. So are Russell and Smalley. However important the public health topic, and whether the story is a journalistic article, a nonfiction film, or a hip-hop track, the message is most powerfully rendered when the audience doesn’t hear a message. It works when the audience feels a story.

Jina Moore is a 2013 IRP New Media Fellow reporting on global health.