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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

When Will the Media's Obsession With the "Down Low" Die?

By Kellee Terrell

July 8, 2010

On the June 22 episode of The View, guest host D.L. Hughley attempted to school America on why HIV is so prevalent among African-American women. He said with confidence, "They are getting it from men who are on the down low."

Co-host Sherri Shepherd agreed with Hughley, and proceeded to offer her take on what the "down low" is: "The down low is African-American men who have sex with men and then have sex with their girlfriends -- or their wives. They're husbands, as well. It's very prevalent in the African-American community. Very!"

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Despite the massive amount of data collected over the years that has found the down low is not fueling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black America -- including a study released last October -- mainstream media has continued to scapegoat "undercover brothas," allowing its own homophobia and bias to take over its ability to cover the epidemic fairly and accurately.

This incident on The View became an instant topic of conversation in the LGBT blogosphere, with numerous bloggers weighing in, including Queerty and Rod: 2.0 Beta. (Ironically, mainstream media was somewhat reluctant to cover the controversy.) On June 24, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) issued a Call to Action petition against ABC and The View, asking for them to make a retraction for their defamatory and erroneous statements. While their efforts garnered thousands of signatures, ABC refused to apologize.

Last Thursday, The Root -- a Newsweek/Washington Post Interactive publication geared for African Americans -- printed an opinion piece I wrote about why media's obsession with blaming HIV/AIDS on down-low black men is dangerous.

In "The Down-Low Delusion," I wrote:

[The threat of the down-low man] has infiltrated our newsrooms and our common sense. And while it may be difficult for folks to wrap their heads around an alternate explanation, let's start trying. Yes, everyone needs to take personal responsibility in their own sex lives when it comes to HIV, but journalists have a responsibility as well--to fairly and accurately report the truth, not make it up as they see fit.

We have to remember that media -- whether magazines, radio shows, talk shows or, most important, news outlets -- are extremely powerful. People trust the information they are given and rely on it to stay informed. Media shapes how people see themselves and the world around them. And in the case of the down-low brotha, the messages they carry can alter the ability to accurately perceive one's own risk of contracting HIV.

Looking at how AIDS is covered in the media, what are folks really learning? Black women are "learning" that if their man is not "suspect," then condoms are not really a necessity. Straight black men are "learning" that this disease has nothing to do with them because they are not gay. Meanwhile, the two are having unprotected sex with each other while we act brand new about how and why this disease is flourishing in our community.

I also discussed the importance for media outlets to utilize seasoned experts as opposed to misinformed talking heads:

No, neither one of these comedians-turned-talking heads is an AIDS expert. I think it's safe to say that if they were asked to name three antiretrovirals sold on the market or tell us what distinguishes HIV from AIDS, there would be awkward silence and an unexpected commercial break. But nowadays, having expertise (or an ounce of knowledge on a topic) is not mandatory for a media platform. Anyone with a camera aimed at them can spout off at the mouth, claiming that fiction is fact, and it goes completely unchallenged. Meanwhile, Americans continue to be bamboozled.

Had The View actually asked established experts such as the University of California, Los Angeles' Chandra L. Ford, White House Office of National AIDS Policy's Gregorio Millett, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Kevin Fenton to come on the show, all of them would have shut down Shepherd & Company.

They would have said that yes, closeted gay black men exist, but contrary to popular belief, the DL is not a major force in the rise of HIV infections among black women in this country. And to substantiate this, they probably would have cited the mounds of data and research findings from the numerous studies they have conducted over the years.

I also added that The View isn't the only news outlet guilty of blaming the down low:

Unfortunately, AIDS-related misinformation is not just relegated to silly morning talk shows. Last October, CNN, which bills itself as America's most trusted news source, ran a segment in its Black Men in the Age of Obama special about gay and bisexual black men.

Instead of discussing pertinent issues that gay and bisexual black men in this country face, CNN anchor Don Lemon, Essence Editor-in-Chief Angela Burt-Murray and panel of ostensibly straight black men (none of whom possessed HIV or LGBT expertise) used the time to talk about how the down low is killing black women. Once again, there was no proof to back up these claims, just regurgitated homophobic hoopla being passed off as news. No bias, no bull? Yeah, right.

Hopefully, ABC and CNN are listening.

Do you think that the media will ever get past the down low and start talking about real issues when it comes to HIV/AIDS? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

See Also
TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More on HIV and the "Down Low"

 

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