There has been a growing discussion recently about coverage of HIV/AIDS by the U.S. news media. Because journalists have reported increasing difficulty in getting their media organizations to run HIV/AIDS stories, questions naturally arise about whether news outlets are expressing some sort of "AIDS fatigue." Coverage of the issue -- or the lack of it -- can be seen as a key indication of how prominent HIV/AIDS is in the realm of public information and opinion.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, in conjunction with Princeton Survey Research Associates, recently conducted an analysis of HIV/AIDS media coverage over the 22-year period from 1981 through 2002. Their survey sampled more than 9,000 news stories from major U.S. print and broadcast sources, including national publications and TV networks, as well as major regional papers in areas particularly hard hit by the epidemic (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami). The Kaiser report also referenced polls that asked people to name the most urgent health problem facing the nation. In October 1987, 68% said HIV/AIDS; by June 2002, that number had fallen to 17%. Although the report acknowledges the difficulty of measuring a cause-effect relationship between media coverage and public perception, it does note that in October 2003, 73% of the U.S. public said most of the information they get about HIV and AIDS comes from the media.
The following are major highlights of the Kaiser study:
Coverage of AIDS peaked in 1987 with over 5,000 stories in the media and declined steadily to 1,000 stories in 2002. The decline began six years before the decrease in the number of new diagnoses of AIDS in the 1990s and continued even as the cumulative number of AIDS cases in the U.S. rose above half a million. Beginning in the late 1990s, there was a large increase in coverage of global AIDS issues as domestic coverage declined. By 2001 and 2002, more than one in five HIV/AIDS news stories were from outside the U.S. and more than 40% presented at least some global perspective.
Populations most affected by the epidemic in the U.S. did not receive the coverage equal to the high impact of AIDS on their lives, according to the study. In the 22-year period, only 3% of stories were about minorities, 3% about teenagers and young adults, and 2% about women. In the study's analysis of the "face of AIDS" as seen on television news, the most frequently portrayed population was healthcare professionals (20% of stories). Gay men appeared in 3% of the stories, teens and young adults in 3%, communities of color in 1% and women in 1%.
The Kaiser Foundation concluded that the most disturbing trend is the decrease in stories with an education component, particularly in light of the fact that as recently as 2000, four in ten Americans still thought HIV could be transmitted through kissing, one in five believed it could be transmitted through sharing a drinking glass and one in six thought it was possible to be infected by coming into contact with a toilet seat.
Be a Media Activist
Such statistics, however, are merely grim facts without some plan of action. What can we do to affect the way the media covers this still very crucial story? Media outlets, of course, depend on consumers just like any other business. As a reader of publications, a TV viewer and a radio listener, you can make it clear to the organizations that depend on your support and attention that you want to see more stories about HIV/AIDS in the U.S. today. Here are some things you can do:
Monitor your local media. Keep track of how many AIDS stories they run, what their focus is and what prominence they get in overall coverage.
Send letters and emails to representatives of the media and let them know what kind of coverage they need to provide. Most publications and broadcast media have Web sites listing staff contacts. Don't just go for the editor-in-chief; you're more likely to get attention from individual department editors (news, health, etc.) and from reporters whose "beat" includes AIDS-related issues. Don't make angry demands -- offer suggestions and information as a consumer.
Write letters to the editor expressing opinions about important issues and about the angle of coverage they receive. Avoid emotional rants. Present information the public should have; this may catch the eye of an editor or reporter and lead to a featured story.
Know your stuff. Gather your own statistics from public health resources about the number of AIDS cases in your area and the populations most affected by the epidemic, and use them to convince the media that AIDS has a far greater impact on their readership or audience than they may realize.
Urge others to do the same. Individual messages are necessary, but there's strength in numbers. The more they hear from the public, the greater attention they'll have to pay.
And keep at it, even if you don't get a response right away. Recently, we received a request from the Oprah Winfrey show to find people willing to appear on an episode about the state of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. today. When I spoke to a prominent HIV-positive activist about this, she was delighted. She said she and many others had been working on producers for a long time to get them to do a show specifically about domestic HIV/AIDS. With the right approach and persistence, it works.