There has been a growing discussion recently about coverage of HIV/AIDS by the U.S. news media. Because journalists have reported increasing difficulty in getting their media organizations to run HIV/AIDS stories, questions naturally arise about whether news outlets are expressing some sort of "AIDS fatigue." Coverage of the issue -- or the lack of it -- can be seen as a key indication of how prominent HIV/AIDS is in the realm of public information and opinion.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, in conjunction with Princeton Survey Research Associates, recently conducted an analysis of HIV/AIDS media coverage over the 22-year period from 1981 through 2002. Their survey sampled more than 9,000 news stories from major U.S. print and broadcast sources, including national publications and TV networks, as well as major regional papers in areas particularly hard hit by the epidemic (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami). The Kaiser report also referenced polls that asked people to name the most urgent health problem facing the nation. In October 1987, 68% said HIV/AIDS; by June 2002, that number had fallen to 17%. Although the report acknowledges the difficulty of measuring a cause-effect relationship between media coverage and public perception, it does note that in October 2003, 73% of the U.S. public said most of the information they get about HIV and AIDS comes from the media.
The following are major highlights of the Kaiser study:
Populations most affected by the epidemic in the U.S. did not receive the coverage equal to the high impact of AIDS on their lives, according to the study. In the 22-year period, only 3% of stories were about minorities, 3% about teenagers and young adults, and 2% about women. In the study's analysis of the "face of AIDS" as seen on television news, the most frequently portrayed population was healthcare professionals (20% of stories). Gay men appeared in 3% of the stories, teens and young adults in 3%, communities of color in 1% and women in 1%.
The Kaiser Foundation concluded that the most disturbing trend is the decrease in stories with an education component, particularly in light of the fact that as recently as 2000, four in ten Americans still thought HIV could be transmitted through kissing, one in five believed it could be transmitted through sharing a drinking glass and one in six thought it was possible to be infected by coming into contact with a toilet seat.
And keep at it, even if you don't get a response right away. Recently, we received a request from the Oprah Winfrey show to find people willing to appear on an episode about the state of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. today. When I spoke to a prominent HIV-positive activist about this, she was delighted. She said she and many others had been working on producers for a long time to get them to do a show specifically about domestic HIV/AIDS. With the right approach and persistence, it works.