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 on Law 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 was a 2013 New Media Fellow of the International Reporting Project