Despite most of us living in the fourth decade of the ongoing HIV epidemic, some people are still living in the first—full of stigma, misinformation, and nothing good to say.
New York City CBS affiliate WCBS has fired the journalist responsible for a stigmatizing news story of a man who was released by a Queens judge after he allegedly fought with police officers at LaGuardia airport. In the original story, which has since been taken down and now redirects to a new story, WCBS reported on Jan. 8 that the HIV-positive man spit into an officer’s mouth. Now, in a statement to Gay City News, WCBS says the man has been fired and claims the story went up without oversight.
“This online story should not have been published,” CBS New York said. “It does not meet our journalistic standards, nor does it reflect our core values. The person who wrote and published the story and social media post failed to review the copy with our news managers. This individual is no longer employed by CBS New York.”
The firing comes after the local CBS affiliate drew the ire of the internet on Wednesday evening into Thursday after tweeting (and later deleting) the story with an egregious, stigmatizing caption.
The CBS New York social media account tweeted the story out on Jan. 8 with the headline, “RELEASED AFTER HIV ATTACK,” and seemed upset with the Queens judge for releasing someone living with HIV “back onto the streets,” implying that he was still a threat in some way. According to timed screenshots, the CBS New York account then tried a new headline, “RELEASED AFTER SPITTING ATTACK,” which still unfortunately forged a false connection between a person living with HIV’s saliva and any kind of real threat.
Though most people reading this know, it is probably time for a helpful reminder: There is absolutely no way a person living with HIV can transmit the virus through saliva. On top of that, reporting that casts people living with HIV as villains is not only a misuse of journalism, but also leads to actual violence against people living with HIV, despite the story framing New Yorkers as being at risk because they live in the same city as HIV-positive people.
The article quotes Port Authority Police Benevolent Association President Paul Nunziato about the situation. CBS New York allows Nunziato to say inaccurate and stigmatizing things about HIV without checking him or fact-checking the information.
“My police officer was assaulted, he and his family will live a life of worry about the possibility of further harm,” Nunziato said. “History will repeat itself and hard-working New Yorkers will once again be hostages in their own homes.”
Is he saying that people are hostages in their own homes because of a person living with HIV?
The article originally had no information stating that HIV could not be transmitted through saliva, but it was later updated. However, many HIV advocates were already upset with the damage CBS New York had done and let them know their feelings on social media. One Twitter user, a member of the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) activist group PrEP4All, tweeted out side-by-side screenshots of the alterations to the article.
ACT UP New York member Jason Rosenberg said, “Really @CBSNewYork? You took the bait from the @PAPD911 using this stigma drenched headline from the ’80s? It’s 2020, and we know full well that HIV CANNOT be transmitted via saliva. You should be ashamed for even remotely spreading these falsehoods.”
“Headlines like this one from @CBSNewYork not only are factually incorrect. They are incredibly dangerous and put the safety of people living with HIV in jeopardy,” tweeted Prevention Access Campaign, the organization behind the Undetectable Equals Untransmittable campaign. “In the era of #UequalsU, there must be zero tolerance for this type of negligence from the media.”
Some people chided CBS New York for using stigmatizing language to push a political agenda. Aside from allowing Nunziato to spread misinformation about HIV, the paper also published a statement knocking New York City’s bail reform laws, which mean fewer people spend time in jail while awaiting trial. In a statement published by CBS, Nunziato said, “Absolutely ridiculous! The number one responsibility of government is to protect the people; bail reform relinquishes government of that responsibility.”
Activist Jason Walker tweeted, “To use dangerous (and medically incorrect) HIV stigma to push back on progressive bail reform is a new low! SHAME ON YOU @PAPD911 president @PNunz865 for attempting to weaponize the HIV/AIDS community for your political interest in keeping poor people in cages!”
ACT UP NY, Housing Works and other local activist groups have planned an emergency action scheduled at noon local time in front of CBS Headquarters to protest the story.