It’s the victims, stupid!

Kevin Sites, the globetrotting multimedia journalist for Yahoo’s Hot Zone, regaled a crown of several dozen aspiring and practicing journalists last night at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He shared the lessons he learned about what media tool to use for whic task, the ethical and moral dilemmas he’s faced, and the hope he’s managed to find in a career dedicated to exploring inhumanity.

After Sites spoke for more than an hour, some Yahoo editors who were also on hand answered questions about the future of the Hot Zone now that Sites has completed his one-year assignment to report on war zones. And because the issue had to be raised, I confronted them with the complaints that Yahoo knuckled under to Chinese authorities by turning over evidence that landed a Chinese blogger in jail.

But sitting at the edge of the semicircle of folding chairs focused on this gorgeous and emotive guy, the story I want to tell is about Sites and the “I-feel-you-pain-journalism” that Hot Zone has built around this simple mantra — to find the story, find the victim.

Take the tale of Serapina, the Congolese woman who, Sites tells us, was first gang-raped by a maurading band of Rwandan soldiers in 1997. They tied her husband to a tree to watch, murdered her two children and set fire to her house. That should have been enough tragedy to last a lifetime, Sites said, but seven years later, during a Congolese uprising, Serapina was raped again. This time her her husband was slaughtered — and she was forced to eat his flesh. But even in this story, which was about the use of rape as a weapon to crush the spirit, Sites found hope. He interviewed a different war-rape victim whose husband divorced her after she was violated and left pregnant — not knowing who had fathered the child she was carrying. Nevertheless, Sites tells us, the woman named the baby Binja — which means “Goodness.”

Very emotional stuff, but let’s be dispassionate for a moment. Is this journalism or voyeurism? Or perhaps a bit of both. And how far afield is it from what all writers do when they mine and refine misery to make their point?

Those are rhetorical questions. But two things set Sites apart from the journalistic pack, the first being his multimedia style, and here he shared some lessons that must be passed on.

When looking at his toolkit — printed word, sound and video, and still images, he quickly realized that the pencil and notebook had to come out first because “text was going to be the spine of the story.” The still camera he used to capture faces, because, as he said, they’re powerful and, as I thought afterwards, it’s impossible to have a poster child if you haven’t got a closeup for the poster. Video he used to capture motion and sound and all the actions that moving pictures uniquely deliver.

The other thing I find even more fascinating about his style is that Site in a way becomes part of the story. It is his charisma that creates the audience; it is through his eyes and heart that we learn. Whatever demons drive him to seek out misery, danger and depravity are between him and his maker or his shrink. But as the Jack Bauer of journalism, he’s got to carry not just the backpack full of cameras and batteries but all the accumulated guilt of traipsing in and out of tragedy. His entire style is confessional. Consider, for instance, this snippet from an essay that Sites wrote when took a a brief vacation to go diving as he neared the end of his year-long tour of duty:

“For nearly a year, through 22 conflict zones and 19 countries, I waited for this moment: a sense of absolution, something to wash me clean of what at times felt like an endless trail of sorrow … What was accomplished? What have we learned? Did anything or anyone change because of it? There is no easy answer for any of these questions, and we will be examining them for some time to come.”

And not to be too mundane but one of the unanswered questions is what business model supports any sort of journalism — much less war reporting — in an online, advertising-driven world. Yahoo editorial news director Bill Gannon and Hot Zone senior producer Robert Padavick got up after Sites to talk about the cost of the project — assuring one listener that it wasn’t in the millions — and suggested that Hot Zone was in the process of being reincarnated as an up-close-and-personal look at stories here in America.

I asked them about the issue I covered yesterday, involving Yahoo turning over evidence that the Chinese government used to imprison the blogger Shi Tao. It was an unfair but necessary question, in this journalism school lecture, given that Reporters Sans Frontiers recently targeted Yahoo as part of a protest of online censorship. They handled it with dignity and with as much forthrightness as one could expect when asking a subordinate to judge those who sign their paychecks. Yes, as journalists they were concerned; they made their feelings known; and they continued to to their jobs because the jobs they’re doing are important.

Fair enough, given that Yahoo is not the only high-tech firm to kowtow to China on this issue. Moreover, among the new online powers, it it has been at the forefront of doing original journalism. It would hardly be smart for journalists to pound the company to the point where it decides to ditch that part of the business.

Nevertheless, it may fall to Yahoo to help find a way to deal with China without the current and widespread complicity in enabling that country’s Internet censorship. Because it’ll be tough for them to live in a glass house if they aspire to leadership in the business of throwing stones.

(I’ll come back later and post a link to the webcast of the event, which was arranged by Gannon and citizen media expert Dan Gillmor, who are teaching a class together.)