Pulitzer Center Update

Bridging media divides

At the height of China's crackdown on Tibet a network newscast features one journalist interviewing another, neither on the scene, about a government-sponsored propaganda trip the latter had once taken to Tibet. "Why is this news?" asks Solana Larson of Global Voices. "Why don't they talk to some local people?"

Larson was among the provocateurs at last week's Media Re:Public, a forum on the evolving role of participatory media that took place at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and is part of a continuing initiative of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

"By 2013 there will be no foreign correspondents," Larson said. "I don't mean that a Brit or an American can't write about China or Tibet. But we'll no longer have this parachuting in, flying in to write about something and then flying out …

"Hopefully we'll have a world where journalists can understand the language in which they're reporting, where they can read the local papers and give you informed commentary on what's happening. If the mainstream media added some of this to their coverage we'd have a different view of them."

The fact that the international news service Reuters now partners with Global Voices to feature local blogs as part of its Africa report is proof that the mainstream media is hearing its critics.

So was the Media Re:Public speech by Richard Sambrook, head of global news for the BBC World Service and author of the terrific news-tracking blog Sacred Facts. Sambrook gave several examples of how the BBC is trying to make itself more open, among them inviting the public to attend the daily news-planning meeting of its Newsnight program and using new communications platforms like Flickr and Twitter on a climate-change project last year in Bangladesh.

But these are early days, as Sambrook acknowledged. On the Bangladesh project the number of Twitter participants was 26. Flickr had more, some 50,000. An audience of several million, meanwhile, followed the reports by old-school shortwave radio.

For much more on the conference check out the reports from some of the savviest new-media bloggers anywhere, in the room and tapping furiously throughout the two-day meeting: David Weinberger of the Berkman Center; Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices; David Cohn of NewsTrust.net; and Charlie Beckett , director of the Public Media Forum at the London School of Economics.

I was at the conference with Mark Ranalli, founder and CEO of Helium, presenting our Global Issues/Citizen Voices contest as one way of bridging old media and new, maintaining the professional standards of journalism while engaging the broadest possible public and making them part of the conversation – and all of that possible through the unique game-proof rating system that has contributed to Helium's explosive growth as a community of writers (three million unique visitors a month!).

The 13 essays questions we posed in our first Helium contest were all based on reporting projects the Pulitzer Center has funded around the world, projects that have each been published or broadcast in major media outlets. The 689 contestants relied on that journalism to shape the essays they wrote while at the same time sharing experiences unique to them – a woman writing about our report on Agent Orange who talked about how exposure to the defoliant may have contributed to the death of her Vietnam-veteran brother, for example, or the former UN worker who cited his own field work to challenge our reporting on the military's nation-building role in Afghanistan.

At the conference I also described a different kind of bridging in the Pulitzer Center's latest project, HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. The goal here was to get beyond statistics and policy disputes and engage people in the human face of a deadly epidemic.

We sent poet Kwame Dawes to his home country of Jamaica five times over the past six months, interviewing dozens of individuals either afflicted with HIV themselves or working with those who are. We videotaped the interviews, created two video documentaries for the public-television program Foreign Exchange, commissioned original photography and music to accompany the poems and essays Kwame wrote, and then worked with bluecadet interactive to create a stunning web experience that encompasses all of these elements and more.

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This project took us far beyond the straight journalism that is the staple of most Pulitzer projects. We took it on because we thought here was an opportunity to fuse old media and new, a wealth of different platforms and styles, and in so doing reach audiences well beyond those of conventional news media outlets. I hope you'll dive into HOPE – and that you'll let us know what you think.

-- Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center (jsawyer@pulitzercenter.org)