WASHINGTON –The 22,000 people who came here from every corner of the world for the 19th International AIDS Conference are on their journeys home now as the global gathering came to a close.
Every one of the doctors, survivors, experts, activists and care givers present has a story to tell. The challenge in the months and years ahead will be for news organizations like ours to stay committed to covering the global AIDS epidemic, and to do a better job making sure we are telling their stories.
This year has sparked a renewed interest in AIDS for news organizations that had allowed fatigue to set in to their coverage. This return (albeit relatively brief) to the story is due in part to the facts that the conference, which ended Friday, was hosted in the US for the first time in 22 years and because we are indeed at a ‘turning point,’ a phrase we heard a lot at the conference. Amid that renewed interest, there was noticeably strong storytelling going on by some of the 1,800 journalists from more than 75 different countries who attended.
I am particularly proud of GlobalPost's small reporting team, led by veteran global health journalist John Donnelly, and global health reporting fellows Emily Judem and Tracy Jarrett. Every day, they offered unique insights, important interviews and hard news angles at the conference. John brought a depth of knowledge from some 20 years of reporting on global health.
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Emily, in particular, brought an extraordinary level of energy for filing to our blog, Global Pulse, and working behind the scenes on our social networking to make sure the stories were getting out to as wide an audience as possible. Tracy offered a powerful set of posts from South Africa to the Anacostia neighborhood of DC, sharing how AIDS touched her own life and prompted her extraordinary journey to study the lessons that South Africa has to offer to the US in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. If you haven’t checked it out, please be sure to read “A Daughter’s Journey” in Global Pulse, as her work was featured on CBS News.
I could go on all day about our team, but there were many great journalists in Washington with a gift for storytelling that remind us all of the enormity of the AIDS story, and the fact that the struggle to turn the corner toward a closing chapter is a long way off, particularly in America’s deep South and inner city neighborhoods.
Among the most powerful examples of this American storytelling on AIDS is the PBS FRONTLINE film "ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America." What makes this film by Renata Simone so riveting is the craft of narrative filmmaking, of making these human stories come alive in a way that forces us to rethink where we are in confronting the AIDS epidemic. The facts are all there are in this film. Most chilling is the fact that every 10 minutes someone in the US will contract HIV. Half are black. The film informs us that 30 years after the outbreak of AIDS came on the radar as a disease afflicting gay, white men, we now know that nearly half of the 1 million in America infected with HIV are black men, women and children.
But Simone’s film is a game changer precisely because she goes beyond the facts and into the human drama that lies within every person who is touched by AIDS. They are people like Nel, the 63-year-old grandmother, who married a deacon in her church only to find out that he had been hiding a diagnosis for HIV in his bible. And in hiding the truth from her, he ultimately infected her. They are survivors like Tom and Keith, who were infected as children in the early 90s; and Jovante, a high school football player who didn’t understand the perils of HIV until it was too late. I spoke with Simone at the conference, who explained, “People have to be given what I call ‘emotional Velcro’ for information to stick, and my whole mission is to try to find those stories that provide that emotional Velcro."
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There were other great examples of journalists working to offer a more wide angle view, including The Washington Post, which published a Special Report titled “AIDS in America.” The report became the cornerstone of an important and productive dialogue hosted last week by the Washington Post Live Editor Mary Jordan, who brought together leading activists and political leaders, including US Secretary for Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who said the Obama administration was committing itself to a coordinated, national campaign to confront the AIDS epidemic which has steadily invaded many African-American communities in America, particularly in the nation’s capital, which has the highest HIV infection rate in the country.
In the cavernous press room at the Washington Convention Center early last week, I ran into NPR’s Richard Knox, a former colleague from the Boston Globe, who has been on this story from the beginning and who has attended all but a few of the 18 previous International AIDS Conferences (including the one 22 years ago which was held in San Francisco amid soaring death rates in the gay community and then in Durban, South Africa, when a truly global fight against AIDS began in earnest). He said it was easy to sometimes feel cynical that big conferences like this can help turn the attention of news organizations back to the enormity of the AIDS epidemic, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said there was no time for cynicism on a story this big.
For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the global fight against the AIDS, check out our Special Report "AIDS: Turning Point," which includes stories from GlobalPost health reporters and fellows.