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Is "AIDS Fatigue" Real? Media Coverage of HIV/AIDS Has Sharply Declined

By Sunny Bjerk

December 6, 2012

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Earlier this week, we announced far and wide that Housing Works won a landmark case against New York City's second largest realtor, Manhattan Apartments, by proving that the brokers actively discriminated against individuals living with AIDS on the basis of their lawful source of income -- a housing subsidy from HASA. With nearly 1,000 listings and approximately 150 licensed realty agents, a win against a company this large was a monumental achievement and very big news.

Yet save a few HIV/AIDS organizations and some wonderful social media chatter, the story was absolutely ignored by mainstream media outlets. Completely shunned. Not one NYC media outlet wanted to run the story, let alone interview the clients involved in the case.

While the NYC media's inaction and disinterest in this story feels almost criminal, it may be part of what many in the AIDS activist field have dubbed "AIDS fatigue," a phrase to describe the very real decline in press coverage of HIV/AIDS.

According to a joint report released in 2004 by Princeton University and the Kaiser Family Foundation, domestic media and press coverage of HIV/AIDS has been steadily decreasing since the late 1980s. "For the newspapers and broadcasts included in this study, total coverage of HIV/AIDS increased during the early 1980s, peaked at over 5,000 stories in 1987, and declined steadily to fewer than 1,000 stories in 2002." The only exceptions to this clear trend were two events: and the use of AZT treatments in the 90s and Magic Johnson's public HIV disclosure in 1991. Otherwise, the disease and its issues -- stigma, discrimination, prevention, education, and treatment -- only account for a paltry 1-2% of coverage during those twenty-two years: 1981-2002.


While the study initially theorized that the decline in coverage coincided with the brief decline in HIV/AIDS cases in the mid-1990s, in fact they found that the decline in media coverage began "almost 6 years before the decline in cases, and continued even as the cumulative number of AIDS cases diagnosed in the U.S. rose above 500,000."

Certainly the decline in coverage could be due to the fact that living with HIV/AIDS has thankfully transitioned from a so-called "death sentence" to a chronic and manageable illness, and that many folks are also focused on health care access and the changes inherent in the Affordable Care Act.

Yet when the disease continues to particularly affect those who already exist on the country's proverbial and political margins -- people of color, low-income people, homeless people, gay men, gay men of color, men who have sex with men, lesbians, sex workers, drug users, transgender people, and women of all ages -- the lack of media coverage is nothing more than a shameful eschewing of a true examination of how the country has and has not helped our most vulnerable populations.

So what does this mean? This means, I think, that the voices of those who are affected by and living with the disease are continually overlooked and silenced as the epidemic continues to infect 50,000 in the U.S. per year. This means that our continued fight to keep HIV/AIDS programs and services that are always the first to go in the inevitable budget season is a fight that goes unwitnessed by many.

It means that, frankly, HIV/AIDS issues are not seen as newsworthy as they once were in the United States. This means that journalists have a hard time "persuading their news organizations to run HIV/AIDS stories."

But this also means that we will not be silent, we will not be complacent, and we will make sure our voices are heard. We will hang our banners and we will drop our trousers if that's what it takes. This means that AIDS activists, people living with HIV/AIDS, our allies and our loved ones have to join us in the fight to remind everyone that the pandemic isn't over until it's over for everyone.

Stay tuned as I continue to explore and dissect HIV/AIDS in the media in future posts.

This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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