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10 Tips for the Media on How to Stop Screwing Up HIV/AIDS Coverage

December 10, 2010

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As an action-packed year for the HIV/AIDS community draws to a close, takes stock of 2010 in a new series of articles, "HIV/AIDS Year in Review: Looking Back on 2010 (and Ahead to 2011)." Read the entire series here.

As 2010 comes to an end, let's take a look at how the media has covered HIV. There is a lot to sort through. Some of the media's work is good. A lot is bad.


This year, we saw a number of medical breakthroughs that made headlines: The discovery of two rare human antibodies that kill 90 percent of all HIV strains, which could provide the basis for a vaccine. The first-ever successful clinical trial of a microbicide, which could bring us one step closer to women being able to have more control over their sexual health. And the finding that pre-exposure prophylaxis can reduce HIV infections among gay men.

This year also brought major events that got heavy news coverage: The XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna. The first-ever national HIV/AIDS strategy for the U.S. The return of U.S. AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) waiting lists, which had been empty, but are now full again. A harsh reminder that you can be imprisoned and potentially executed for being gay in certain countries. And a confirmation that poverty is the top risk factor for HIV among heterosexuals living in inner cities.

On the pop culture end, HIV was also present. Part of the porn industry temporarily shut down when adult film actor Derrick Burts tested positive. Project Runway's Mondo Guerra disclosed his status on air. The Other City, a documentary about HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., debuted to rave reviews. And on World AIDS Day, celebrities "died" on social media, only to have some billionaire "resuscitate" them when it looked as if they might not be able to raise enough money to do so through smaller donations.

And while people living with HIV don't always make the headlines, this year some did -- for being famous or just infamous. Choreographer Bill T. Jones won his second Tony for the Broadway hit Fela! And in December, Jones, who has been positive since 1985, was awarded, along with Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney, the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors. Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, ejected himself from a plane when he got fed up with unruly passengers. (For some odd reason, the media felt the need to play up his HIV-positive status when reporting on the incident.) And Nadja Benaissa, a German pop star, branded the phrase "HIV criminalization" into the world's vernacular -- for better or for worse. In August, she was found guilty of causing bodily harm to an ex-boyfriend for having unprotected sex with him, not disclosing that she had HIV, and ultimately infecting him with the virus.

But even in the wake of all of this, the media still doesn't report enough about the global pandemic and, most importantly, there are not enough stories exploring the U.S. epidemic. (Newsflash: AIDS is still a huge problem here in the U.S.) And when the media does tackle AIDS in America, too many times it borrows from FOX News' playbook of sensationalism, fabrications and one-sided narratives.

Just how many down low and criminalization stories can a person take?

We do acknowledge that there are certainly difficulties in covering HIV -- the lack of staff reporters who are knowledgeable about the subject; dwindling budgets; smaller, overworked staffs; and the fact that HIV doesn't exactly garner the most page views or magazine/newspaper sales -- but that still doesn't let the media off the hook.

Something's got to give.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
HIV/AIDS Year in Review: Looking Back on 2010 (and Ahead to 2011)
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Sally (London) Mon., Mar. 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm UTC
Great article, thank you.

The thing that drives me mad in the UK is the media writing hiv/AIDS or hiv/aids. I see it in all the major punlications. They're acronyms! HIV/AIDS please!
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Comment by: Martin Stolk (Amsterdam, NL) Fri., Jan. 7, 2011 at 4:24 am UTC
Can I add that aside from seniors and teens, also people with disabilities (deaf, blind or otherwise) have sex and are at increased risk of HIV as a) they can end up in abusive relationships; b) educational materials are not in sign language or braille... When we talk about key populations at risk we should include people with disabilities.
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Comment by: Diana B. (La Jolla, CA) Fri., Dec. 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm UTC
Kellee, This is such an amazing piece. You have hit on so many great points and have opened my eyes to so many truths about the media coverage of HIV/Aids. Thank you for sharing the information on Marvelyn Brown and Jane Fowler. Incredible individuals. I will follow your writings on twitter.
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Comment by: Jerry (Los Angeles) Fri., Dec. 17, 2010 at 12:04 pm UTC
Good article, but if you're going to bash Fox News, then you should bash CNN,MSNBC,ABC,NBC,CBS,CNBC,etc... Fox does not fabricate or sensationalize the news. The facts are the facts. We're all adults here and we have Internet access to look them up and disprove them for ourselves. :)
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Comment by: Jennifer Fri., Dec. 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm UTC
You are kidding yourself if you believe that Fox news is not biased with their news coverage. And as for media coverage of HIV, until it affects more of the general population, the wealthy, white women, and heterosexuals, then the search for a cure and news coverage will remain skewed and scarce.

Comment by: David B. (Key West) Fri., Dec. 17, 2010 at 6:29 am UTC
You failed to mention Jerry Herman in the Kennedy Center Honors--who is also known for his work on Broadway as a composer/lyricist and is also HIV+!
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Comment by: Martha (Harare, ZW) Fri., Dec. 17, 2010 at 12:56 am UTC
Great great article ... food for thought, not just for media, but for programmers in HIV/AIDS, human rights and health work.
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Comment by: mack470 (Jersey City,NJ) Thu., Dec. 16, 2010 at 3:41 pm UTC
This a really great message but what are the chances the media will follow your suggestions,most likely not at all.The points you made were right on target.HIV will never get the coverage like the,LINDSAY LOHAN,OR THE KARDASHIANS unless one of them gets infected.
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Comment by: Martha (Harare, ZW) Fri., Dec. 17, 2010 at 12:54 am UTC
"HIV will never get the coverage like the,LINDSAY LOHAN,OR THE KARDASHIANS unless one of them gets infected" ... and disclose publicly...

Comment by: HIVgirl - (Okanagan, BC, Canada) Thu., Dec. 16, 2010 at 12:14 pm UTC
This is an article that is excellent... thank you for saying it like it is! has always been a great resource for me and no, I don't work there.. hah! I am just a woman with HIV in Canada and look to you guys as people who know what you are talking about. THANKS AGAIN!
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Comment by: Jonathan Batiste (San Francisco, CA) Mon., Dec. 13, 2010 at 3:35 pm UTC
Best article around HIV i've read all year. I LOVE the proactive activism in the message. Your quote on the REAL reason for the HIV disparity among Black folk is in my signature line at work.
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Comment by: Hilly (France) Mon., Dec. 13, 2010 at 3:01 pm UTC
It annoys me that in all soap operas and TV films people jump into bed or other places with each other, but condoms are never mentioned !
As much as smoking in TV films has been reduced, as much should condoms become a subject on TV.

Soap operas are on TV all day long, why can't they just add a few seconds by letting the actors use condoms or at least mention them?
I remember that I saw ONE film in the last ten years or so, where the couple actually bought condoms first, and then went on !
That's simply not enough.

And also: Bring back the condom adverts from the Eighties !!!
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Comment by: Krishna Stone (New York City) Mon., Dec. 13, 2010 at 11:18 am UTC
Thank you Kellee for a superb and inspiring article on the media and HIV/AIDS!

Krishna Stone
Communications Department
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