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In Charlie Sheen Reporting, Media Chooses Snark, Speculation and Stigma

November 23, 2015

Althea Fung

Althea Fung

One of the first things you learn in journalism school -- or in your first journalism gig -- is to seize your reader's attention immediately. If you can't get them with a catchy headline, a quippy tweet or a snarky Facebook post, you probably won't get them to click on the article -- let alone get them to make it to the end.

But in their thirst to break the news that Charlie Sheen is HIV-positive, some news outlets just left the story there. Sticking with the hook, they failed to properly report on the disease and what being positive actually means for the actor, his loved ones and the broader community of people living with HIV. And they trampled on the ethical standards for HIV reporting in the process.

Example 1: Out Magazine, a source of news and information for the gay and lesbian community, posted the following tweet the day before Sheen's announcement:

PROBLEM: In addition to being speculative, the tweet reinforces the stereotype that to be HIV-positive is to be a contagion preying on the health and strength of those who are HIV-negative. HIV isn't like a sneeze -- it doesn't just start infecting people with wild abandon.

This story angle is particularly alarming when you consider the source. Out Magazine is dedicated to reporting on the gay community -- a community that has been accused of spreading HIV. Charlie Sheen might not be gay, but this tweet perpetuates the misconception that an HIV-positive person will undoubtedly infect an HIV-negative person -- and that speculation on this hypothesis should be a matter of public gossip.

Example 2: Many people and news sources immediately began to question or focus on the HIV status of Sheen's former wives and even his children. E! News posted this tweet:

PROBLEM: HIV-positive people can have happy, healthy relationships and families without passing the virus to their loved ones. People with HIV can safely impregnate HIV-negative partners. And the vast majority of the time, women with HIV in the U.S. have a safe and successful pregnancy with no risk of the child acquiring HIV. Reporting on an almost non-issue like parent-to-child HIV transmission (which has been all-but-eliminated in the United States) continues to fuel the misconception that HIV-positive people cannot and should not be parents.

Example 3: During the Today show interview, both host Matt Lauer and Sheen spoke about Sheen's relationship with sex workers. This was coupled with reports about how much money Sheen allegedly spent on sex workers before and after he knew he was HIV positive.

PROBLEM: It's two-fold, at least.

First, it reinforces the idea that the only way to prevent the spread of HIV is to not have sex, which is, well, not realistic. What's the logic of the tweet, anyway? Let's try this out: Charlie Sheen has HIV. He has a lot of expensive sex with sex workers. He infects the sex workers. The sex workers in turn infect their patrons. Their patrons go on to infect their wives, girlfriends, and other such innocent person in their lives.

Both Sheen and his doctor explained that Sheen is undetectable, which means that he is at a relatively low risk of spreading the virus. Also, there are preventative measures available even if he wasn't undetectable -- including condom usage, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

It also demonizes sex work and the people who employ sex workers. Sex workers are another group labeled as deviants that spread of HIV. But in fact, researchers believe that legalizing sex work could help reduce the rate of HIV transmission by 33% to 46%. Perhaps if they weren't overlooked in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, sex workers could be better recognized as a group with something to say about how to address HIV, and not just people to be used and then disregarded or blamed.

Example 4: Also during his Today interview, Sheen acknowledged that he has had condomless sex after receiving his diagnosis. Since then, one of his former girlfriends has come forward to talk about their decision to have sex.

She says the risk was worth it because she was in love with Charlie Sheen at the time.

Posted by on Thursday, November 19, 2015

PROBLEM: This only tells half of the story and in a very sensational manner. We can't say it enough: People with HIV can have condomless sex with HIV-negative people without risk of transmitting the virus.

This headline fails to mention that Amanda Bruce took pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) -- in addition to Sheen already having an undetectable viral load. As a health care professional, Bruce was aware that under those circumstances there's virtually no risk of HIV transmission. In a committed, honest relationship in which both parties know the implications of having condomless sex and take the necessary cautionary measures (as should be done in all sexual relationships no matter people's HIV status) transmission is just not an issue.

Thankfully, not all the Sheen reporting was "bad" or ill-informed. Some media outlets saw his disclosure as an opportunity to shed light on HIV -- and to do so accurately and with sensitivity. Here are some standouts:

Want to do some reporting of your own about HIV? Check out the HIV Plus Style Guide, or head on over to

Althea Fung is the community editor for For her thoughts on the healthcare industry, food and other random musing, check out her personal website, follow her on Twitter or stalk her on Facebook.

Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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