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

By Kellee Terrell

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.

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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:

  1. Include More Voices of People Living With HIV: This is a "no duh" if we want to eliminate stigma. But minus the media frenzy around Project Runway's Mondo Guerra disclosing his HIV status on air, mainstream media almost never showcases the real voices of people living with HIV.

    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.

  2. Complicate the Issue of HIV Criminalization: It took a German pop star to get most of the world to take notice of the increasing number of HIV criminalization and non-disclosure laws around the world. And the world did notice: In 2010, there was a flurry of media coverage on the issue. (You know the topic is here to stay when Law & Order: SVU dedicates an entire episode to it.)

    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?"

  3. Lay the Down Low to Rest: Even though studies show that closeted men who have sex with both men and women are not fueling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black America, this topic just won't die. This year alone, we had the debacle on The View, op-eds written in black media, and Tyler Perry's new film, For Colored Girls, to remind us just how prevalent and powerful this cultural phenomenon still is. In 2011, let's start focusing on what's really going on: disproportionate poverty, intravenous drug use, homophobia, lack of access to health care, high rates of undiagnosed sexually transmitted diseases, high rates of incarceration and barriers to condom use, to name a few.
  4. Bigwigs Are Not the Only People You Should Pay Attention To: Did you know that, this summer at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, sex workers from around the world had a major presence (including a huge rally)? Or that the same was true of drug users, who had an international declaration on their behalf signed by more than 18,000 people? Did you know that UNIFEM and the ATHENA Network released a comprehensive report that highlighted the lack of female leadership in HIV policymaking despite the fact that the global face of AIDS is more female than male? Did you know that, the day before the conference, an amazing event took place where gay men and other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community members and supporters from around the world could meet and network?

    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.

  5. Teens and Seniors Have Sex Too: If it wasn't for the reality shows 16 and Pregnant and Sunset Daze, or the occasional sensationalized stories about "retirement homes gone wild" or "teen sex parties," one would think that these two groups never had sex. Oh, but they do -- and the media (along with most of society) needs to get over its hang-ups and begin exploring the alarming and rising rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among these demographics. This means fewer interviews with Bristol Palin and company, and more interviews with women such as Marvelyn Brown and Jane Fowler.
  6. It's About Power (or the Lack Thereof): Articles about condom negotiation are wonderful and we need more of them, but not everyone has the power to use a condom. This point was brilliantly made in the documentary The Other City, when J'Mia, an HIV-positive mother of three, talked about the impossibility of demanding condom use when in an abusive relationship. She said she would do what it took to not get "beat on" and that meant keeping her mouth shut about using protection.

    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.

  1. The Fight for LGBT Equality Is Connected to HIV Risk: While the media continues to improve its reporting on LGBT issues -- especially around bullying, homophobia, DADT (the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law), marriage equality and job discrimination -- more needs to be done to illustrate how these issues directly impact one's own HIV risk.

    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.)

  2. Stop Ignoring the "T" in "LGBT": Don't let the New York Times' article about how "2010 will be remembered as the year of the transsexual" fool you into believing that transgender people get their fair share of media coverage and respect. While there has been a slight increase in trans representation, all media -- mainstream, LGBT and even HIV/AIDS media (including us at TheBody.com) -- needs to do a better job at discussing how issues of safety, job instability and sex work heighten trans folks' HIV risk. (Not to mention how hormone therapy may interact with HIV meds.) However, it's also true that more work needs to be done within the HIV/AIDS community to ensure that transgender advocates receive more funding and support to conduct necessary research about transgender health.
  3. Try Normalizing HIV; It's Not That Hard: HIV has always been the "cheese that stands alone" -- it's even classified separately from other sexually transmitted diseases. One way to help destigmatize the disease is to include a discussion about HIV into stories in which HIV is simply a fact to be noted, not the focus of the entire piece. For example, in a feature about people struggling to pay for their health care or the difficulties of adhering to daily medications, why not include a person living with HIV as one of the interviewees? Or in a story about Mother's Day, or Valentine's Day, or Veteran's Day, why not include the perspective of an HIV-positive person? HIV doesn't always have to exist outside the box.
  4. If You Don't Know, You Better Ask Somebody: Dear journalists: Since the invention of the telephone (and, more recently, the Internet), there is no longer any reason to continue to publish stories that are not factual or that are irresponsibly one-sided. There are plenty of experts, people living with HIV and advocates who can help you understand the complexities of the epidemic. If you have a question, reach out to them. You can even reach out to one of us and we can help get you into contact with the right people. Please use us as a resource. Yours truly, TheBody.com.

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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