The Trouble With AIDS in Mainstream Media

Published: June 2, 2014

In the wake of Donald Sterling, the soon-to-be-former co-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who’s now infamous for his racist and AIDS-phobiccomments against Magic Johnson, advocates are raising questions about the lack of mainstream media coverage of HIV outside of these types of scandals.

“The national media has grossly understated HIV for well over a decade. The last time there was a true flurry was when antiretroviral (ARV) treatment became the lay of the land,” said Janet Weinberg, interim chief executive officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). “And when the media does tell stories about HIV, they are usually replicated or duplicated or pushed into a little tiny box.”

A recent analysis of cable evening news by Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit research organization that monitors the media, showed that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have virtually ignored most of the major developments in the fight against HIV/AIDS over the past year.

According to their analysis—which looked at cable news segments between January 1, 2013, and March 31, 2014—CNN had 12 stories about prevention, research and treatment of HIV/AIDS while MSNBC had five stories and Fox News had four. Aside from stories involving HIV crimes, most of those stories focused on the baby “cured” of HIV, on Magic Johnson, on World AIDS Day and on President George W. Bush’s international AIDS work.

“[The HIV community is] seriously talking about ending AIDS, and the media is M.I.A. in raising awareness about the reality of the epidemic in 2014,” said Phill Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute. “It’s really abysmal given where we are in the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic. We still have 50,000 new infections every year and have had for the past 10 years. That’s an investigative news story right there that is not being told.”

And the issue is more than sheer volume. As stories about advancements in HIV/AIDS research, prevention and treatment have increasingly disappeared from mainstream cable evening news, so have the voices of experts in the field.

In the same study, Media Matters found that of the 21 qualifying stories across the three networks, less than half featured a medical professional, activist or organizational leader specializing in HIV/AIDS, which to many activists is tantamount to not reporting the stories at all.

“It’s 1,000 percent important to have experts with different opinions present in these conversations,” said Jim Pickett, director of prevention advocacy and gay men’s health for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC). Pickett also is the chair of the International Rectal Microbicides Advocates. “There is a lot of information out there, and the average person isn’t an expert on clinical trials. It’s unfortunate when there isn’t an expert present to make stories understandable.”

And to Wilson, who is often CNN’s go-to expert, it’s also about getting experts who accurately reflect the modern realities of the virus.

“Even in the case of who the experts are, I’m shocked,” Wilson said. “In an epidemic that overwhelmingly impacts black men, especially black gay men, it’s important that the reflections of that reality are in the people who are deemed experts.”

AIDS activists acknowledge that getting mainstream media to care about advancements in treatment, research and prevention is an uphill battle, but it’s one that requires work from all sides. And in the absence of traditional media, advocates have turned to other avenues, such as social media and issue-based listservs to get and share information.

“I think an analysis that only looks at what evening news covers misses the vast majority of people who don’t get their news that way,” said Pickett, who doesn’t watch the evening news in Chicago where he lives because “it’s mostly about fires and shootings.” These days, he gets most of his news from Facebook and Twitter.

“We have a lot of ownership in pushing the media agenda,” Pickett said. “It’s up to activists to cultivate relationships with reporters when stories break, and I think it’s so much bigger than a couple of outlets. If we want a story out there, organizations serving people with HIV or trying to keep people from getting HIV have to think creatively.”

Media visibility has long been cited as a tool to help fight stigma around the virus. In fact, media visibility statistically increases the number of people seeking services and reduces targeted violence toward HIV-positive people—especially among communities of color.

And while Weinberg agrees that much of the information is now being shared via social media in the absence of traditional media, she believes there’s still a certain cachet that comes from national media coverage.

“The press validates that GMHC is the place to go if you need wrap-around services and help finding your voice,” said Weinberg, who saw a bump in people seeking services and donations after The New York Times ran a story featuring its work with young gay and bisexual men of color. “Teaching clients how to advocate for themselves is one of the strongest things we can do.”

So what types of stories should mainstream media be telling right now?

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