Racial bias and misinformation run rampant in HIV criminalization reporting, a Canadian research team recently found, and the key to countering these dangerous media trends lies within the communities most impacted by them.
Just in time for World AIDS Day 2016, social science researchers released a groundbreaking study, "Callous, Cold and Deliberately Duplicitous: Racialization, Immigration and the Representation of HIV Criminalization in the Candian Mainstream Newspapers," documenting a pattern of racism against black men in mainstream newspaper coverage of HIV non-disclosure cases in Canada going back more than 25 years. Canada, like the United States, is among the countries leading the world in unfair use of criminal law to punish people based on their HIV status.
For many years, people living with HIV and organizations working on their behalf have made claims of anti-black and anti-immigrant bias in mainstream media coverage of HIV criminalization in Canada. The researchers sought to offer systematic, empirical evidence in response to these claims, according to Eric Mykhalovskiy, a professor of sociology at York University, who has been involved in HIV advocacy since 1989. Mykhalovskiy led the report's five-person research team, all of whom have experience in community organizing, HIV advocacy and research.
"Concerns raised by black people living with HIV were absolutely confirmed by the study," Mykhalovskiy told TheBody.com. "It was, in fact, a bit surprising to see the extent of prejudicial coverage -- the over-emphasis on cases that involved black male defendants."
The team offered their "racial disclosures" at the opening of the report, noting that, as white academics, they do not represent the voices of black immigrants living with HIV, but take cues from an advisory committee that includes members of communities most impacted by their research. They analyzed 1,680 English-language newspaper articles concerning HIV criminal cases from 1989 to 2015, alongside hard data on such cases in the country.
According to the report, alleged HIV nondisclosure could be regarded as a "white crime" in Canada if one looked only at the statistics of those charged. However, while black immigrant men living with HIV account for 15 percent of known defendants in such cases, they are the subjects of four times that volume of newspaper coverage of HIV criminalization: Sixty-one percent of stories were about black immigrant men. Forty-nine percent of the coverage sample concerned the cases of only four men, all of them black immigrants.
"When an individual is black, that is foregrounded" in media coverage, Mykhalovskiy explained. "When someone is white, you would never know. Whiteness is completely invisible." White people, as a group, were least likely to have the details of their HIV-related criminal charges and cases paraded through Canadian news, the researchers found.
"White defendants would appear to enjoy a measure of protection from being reported on in the news media," the report asserts, in keeping with the idea that those who do not possess given stigmatizing characteristics are not in a neutral position, but in fact benefit from the stigmatization of others.
This gross overrepresentation by black male defendants in news coverage falls in line with an age-old trend of overemphasizing the criminality of black men, Mykhalovskiy pointed out. The highly sensationalized, racialized and sexualized cases of Nushawn Williams -- a mere child when he engaged in the activities for which he is now locked up indefinitely -- and, more recently, Michael Johnson, are examples of this trend in the U.S.
Meanwhile, research from the U.S. has made the connection between disproportionate media coverage of people of color as criminals and support for harsher punishment. Bearing this out, in at least four U.S. states, black people charged with HIV-related crimes receive longer sentences than white defendants. A 2013 report by the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario (ACCHO) pointed out a similar race-based trend in sentencing in Canada.
No matter the race of the defendant, coverage of HIV criminalization was steeped in bias, the researchers found. Newspaper articles in the report's dataset customarily painted all people living with HIV who face nondisclosure charges as dishonest, immoral and predatory; employed simplistic frames of "criminal" and "victim"; wildly overestimated HIV transmission risk; and quoted expert testimonies in a way that stressed wrong-doing on the part of the defendant.
The analysis found that, when the subject of the piece was a black man, these traits were directly tied to his blackness, immigrant status and general "other-ness" through racialized code such as printing subjects' photos and repeatedly mentioning their country of origin or "rare" African HIV strain.
"The long history of exaggerating and creating connections between race, sexual danger and criminality gets reproduced in these stories," said Mykhalovskiy, "so you have a lot of coverage that frames men in these cases as dangerous sexual predators."
Telling individuals' stories in "criminal justice time," according to the language and benchmarks of movement through the legal system (sentencing, court orders, etc.), further flattens the complex experiences of people living with HIV facing nondisclosure charges.
"People's capacities to think in complex ways about this issue are diminished by the repeated, narrow framing of crime stories," Mykhalovskiy said.
The report's findings serve as an additional resource for advocates to support their claims of media bias. A longer-term goal is to influence the way HIV criminal cases are reported in Canada and beyond.
"It's time that journalists start to turn their attention to the broader picture," Mykhalovskiy asserted. "They need to start to attend to questions of why is the criminal law being used in this way, when it does next to nothing to prevent HIV transmission, ... [and what are] alternatives to using the criminal law."
In covering HIV criminalization stories, the researchers found, journalists must draw on the expertise of people living with HIV, HIV service organizations and human rights advocates. Furthermore, people living with and working in HIV must insert themselves into the mainstream media conversation.
The report found that people working in HIV, and particularly for organizations representing black people living with HIV, provided "the single most important and consistent source of a counter-discourse on HIV criminalization" in their dataset. This counter-narrative was communicated not only though quotes by community-based experts in coverage of criminal cases, but also through editorials and letters to the editor that HIV community members and professionals wrote themselves.
"The stories that shift the frame are stories where people living with HIV, advocates and activists are quoted as key sources," Mykhalovskiy stressed. Positioning people living with and working in HIV as key opinion leaders on HIV criminalization will take time and resources, but as this landmark report proves, the investment can result in life-saving returns.
Read this one-pager for a summary of other key findings and recommendations of the report.
Read the full report.