world_aids_day_ribbon.jpgWith all of the news coverage detailing HIV/AIDS in South Florida, the area still remains one of the nation’s hot spots for infection.

That's why Allan Richards wants to inform the public in a new way.

The Florida International University journalism professor has launched a new project: Students from the FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communication will partner with The Miami Herald to create an online reality Web series designed to educate the community about HIV/AIDS in South Florida.

The series will tell the story of local residents living with the virus. Richards will work alongside Kate MacMillin, an adjunct instructor at the journalism school and a veteran TV producer.

“We need to get the community mobilized,’’ said Richards, who is also the school’s interim associate dean. “It’s critical to create awareness in an area with such escalating rates of infection.”

That’s especially true in the black community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans account for about half of the nation’s HIV/AIDS cases, although they make up only 13 percent of the population.

AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women age 25 to 34, and the second-leading cause of death among black men age 35 to 44.

As more residents turn to the Internet for news, Richards said the online reality series is a new way to “drive home the message.”

“These are real life stories,’’ he said.

Jillian Simms, a 22-year-old aspiring TV news reporter who is participating in the project, is excited to tackle what she says is still a “taboo issue.”

“I give a lot of credit to Professor Richards for pushing for coverage of HIV/AIDS,’’ said Simms, of Miami. “He sees the big picture and he’s bringing up topics that people are not talking about.’’

Simms, who recently graduated from FIU’s journalism school, knows the impact of HIV/AIDS first-hand. Her uncle, Edward Bryant, died of AIDS when she was nine.

“My mother didn’t know that her brother was infected [with HIV] until he was on his death bed,’’ Simms said. “He kept it quiet.”

Simms wrote about her personal experience in an essay that won her a trip to South Africa, along with Richards and fellow FIU journalism student Tiffany Ann Parkes.

Richards said he arranged the trip so that his students could get a hands-on lesson on how to cover the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For 12 days, the trio backpacked around Cape Town, Johannesburg and other towns, capturing their experiences on video.

Simms said they also met with the members of the local media to learn more about how South African journalists reported on HIV/AIDS and its impact on the community.

Simms said she saw similarities between South Africa and South Florida.

“South Africa is so beautiful on the outside, but it has a lot of problems on the inside and I think the same is true in South Florida,” she said. “You can’t think that because they are so far away that their problems are not our problems. No matter what country you are in or what race you are, you can still be infected with AIDS.”

Rick Hirsch, The Miami Herald’s director of multimedia and special projects, said the online reality series should launch on the newspaper’s website,, some time in November or December.

“This could be the best thing we’ve ever done,’’ Hirsch said, adding that the project will give FIU’s journalism students a head start on learning the latest in multimedia technology.

“Life is changing in the way people are getting information,’’ he said.

“Young journalists are learning the same standards of accuracy and fairness that have always been so important to the news-gathering process, but they are learning new ways to tell the story. Media is no longer one-dimensional.’’

Simms agreed:  “Our whole generation is well-suited for this type of change. Growing up, we had the Internet and all the new technology. Now, as a journalist, if you're not on top of what’s new, you are not going to go very far.”