December 10, 2010
As an action-packed year for the HIV/AIDS community draws to a close, TheBody.com 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.
And this is where we come in. We looked over 2010's media coverage of HIV/AIDS and came up with 10 important lessons that journalists should keep in mind for next year:
Wouldn't it be awesome if -- on a day other than World AIDS Day -- we could hear people living with HIV talk about love and marriage; stigma and discrimination; pregnancy and family; treatment and adhering to drugs; the trials and tribulations of being on an ADAP waiting list; disclosing to others; and all that other good stuff? Perhaps "reality" only works for the Kardashians.
But minus the exception of The Michigan Messenger's Todd Heywood, who does a wonderful job of defining the nuances of the issue and exposing the hypocrisy of these laws, too often media coverage depicts people living with HIV as "bitter, irresponsible and dangerous criminals" who purposely infect their "innocent" partners.
We hope that with the legal work and advocacy of criminalization experts such as the Center for HIV Law & Policy's Catherine Hanssens and Sean Strub, Lambda Legal's Bebe Anderson and journalist and blogger Edwin Bernard, journalists will begin asking their readers when writing about criminalization, "Whose responsibility is it to keep you negative: your partner or yours?"
Of course you did. But the rest of the world probably did not: All of those stories were overlooked, because journalists were more interested in writing about Bill Gates, Annie Lennox and other high-powered players who were present at the conference. While the work they do can be helpful, here is a plea to the media: Please don't forget about the grassroots work that is being done to better the lives of people living with HIV. You might be missing out on a good story.
While feminism in the U.S. has made many strides, there are many who have been left behind in the U.S. and abroad. There should be more articles that illustrate the concrete harms that gender oppression, poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse and economic instability have on women and their vulnerability to contracting HIV.
This year, on a global level, we saw the media cover the criminalization of homosexuality in certain countries in Africa and explore how that anti-gay sentiment made it extremely difficult to do HIV work. We need to be able to make those same connections in the U.S.
It may come as a surprise to some that there are still many cases (and many states) in which it is legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the U.S. And if people can be fired from their job, that means they can lose their financial stability. They become less able to look after their health care, and in some cases may even become homeless. A slew of reasons begin to emerge that can make those individuals more vulnerable to HIV.
(Hint, hint: National LGBT organizations, perhaps now is the time to make HIV/AIDS a platform issue. If you do, the media might follow.)
What else do you believe was mismanaged in the media this year? What other recommendations do you have for journalists? Please e-mail us or leave a comment below!
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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