Media Suffering From AIDS Fatigue?

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Dec 16, 2013
Media Suffering From AIDS Fatigue?
  (Source:Thinkstock by Getty Images)

In 1983, the problem was getting the media to pay attention to HIV/AIDS. In 2013, the problem is getting the media to pay attention to HIV/AIDS.

By 1989, James Kinsella had amassed enough information to write the first comprehensive look at the how the nation's media missed the biggest story of the late 20th century. "Covering the Plague" makes a strong case of how and why major news outlets like The New York Times, the three alphabet network's news programs, the wire services and newsmagazines -- then still-dominant national news outlets --- consciously made the decision to ignore a pandemic in their midst.

As long as AIDS remained a gay disease, and then moved into other highly marginalized populations like Haitian immigrants and intravenous drug users, mainstream news organizations figured that their audience wouldn't be interested. They feared that if they did cover it, they would be resented for bringing the sordid topic of gay sex into people's living rooms.

Only when film star Rock Hudson died in 1985 did the media sit up and take notice. It speaks volumes that it took a major Hollywood celebrity to make AIDS a major story, not to mention the first time the president, Ronald Reagan, uttered the word "AIDS" in public.

The year 1985 proved a watershed. HIV had entered the nation's blood supply and struck particularly hard at hemophiliacs. Among those affected was a kid in Kokomo, Ind., named Ryan White, who has become to AIDS what Anne Frank is to the Holocaust -- the innocent face of a child undone by outside forces.

Instead of doing what they should have been doing all along, however, and reporting on the facts that were readily available from the Centers for Disease Control, media big and small chose the sensational route. Rather than reassuring people that HIV was not a particularly robust virus and didn't survive for long outside of the human body, they played to the public's worst fears that kissing, a toilet seat or even casual contact might (there's a world in that word "might") result in infection.

The resultant hysteria had real-life consequences. Hospital patients were quarantined, their meals slipped under the door, doctors and nurses dressed in full-fledge Hazmat outfits. Gay waiters, hairdressers and anyone else making physical contact were shunned. The Rays, a family with hemophiliac children, were pitted against the school board and the community in the Central Florida town of Arcadia. Eventually, their house was firebombed.

A Virus on the Move
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A Virus on the Move

If there’s anything positive to have come out of this sordid story of the most respected journalists of their time behaving very, very badly, it’s that LGBT Americans finally moved out of the shadows and onto the nation’s front pages. Once AIDS did become an ongoing major story, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle -- or the queer back in the closet.

Our relationships, our jobs, our religious observance, our problems and our courage could no longer be ignored. The legacy of the ’80s can be seen every day in every medium. Stories about gay men, lesbians and transgendered individuals are no longer swept under the rug; gay issues have moved front and center into the national debate.

So what went wrong? How did HIV and AIDS in America drift away from the media’s radar while the pandemic continues?

When Kinsella’s wrote in the late ’80s that he remained "pessimistic about the prospects of the nation facing up to the next wave of AIDS, striking heterosexual minorities, as well as the nation’s next major health crisis, already brewing in large American cities," he didn’t know how correctly he predicted exactly what has happened.

A 2004 study found that total media coverage of HIV/AIDS peaked in 1989, the same year that Kinsella’s book condemned the media for having ignored the crisis during its worst years. After the advent of the retroviral meds "cocktail," HIV went from "death sentence" to "manageable condition." That also meant that it was becoming as urgent as, say, diabetes.

Americans, it seems, had accepted HIV/AIDS as a permanent part of the landscape. There were a few spikes, notably when basketball superstar Magic Johnson revealed he was positive in 1991. But overall, Kinsella has been proven exactly right.

Journalists (or at least their editors) often cite the mantra that good news isn’t news. But when the Bar Area Reporter, San Francisco’s major gay newspaper, ran a headline reading "No obits," it became national news.

Attention Shifts to Global Pandemic
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Attention Shifts to Global Pandemic

The 2004 study noted that the horrendous situation in the developing world, particularly Africa, became more and more of a focus of American media attention. Between 1997 and 2002, stories about HIV in the U.S. decreased 57 percent while stories about the global epidemic grew by 118 percent. But the study cited another reason, a term that has become the center of media criticism about HIV, "AIDS fatigue": Readers had tired of stories that seemed to repeat themselves about the newly infected; and journalists moved on to hotter, more of-the-moment topics.

Just last year, Housing Works, the activist organization that advocates for more and better housing for HIV-positive New Yorkers, complained that AIDS fatigue was responsible for a local media blackout of a landmark case it had won against the city’s second-largest realtor. One observer in 2004 pointed a finger at activists like Housing Works for the problem.

By insisting "on framing it as an emergency rather than a lasting concern," wrote Kai Wright, an editor of New York’s City Limits magazine, they sought to "create a sense of urgency by focusing on hyperbolic scenarios."

In recent years, the 30th anniversary of the first CDC report in 1981 on a strange cancer and a very rare form of pneumonia appearing in gay men in New York and San Francisco, garnered a spate of coverage. So did the first international conference on AIDS last year in Washington, D.C., after the federal government finally lifted its official ban on HIV-positive foreign visitors.

Those aside, the 15 seconds Fox News devoted to World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 this year is more typical of the attention major news outlets are giving to a virus that continues to infect 50,000 people a year.

A Minority Disease Not As Compelling?
  (Source:Thinkstock by Getty Images)

A Minority Disease Not As Compelling?

Meanwhile, just as Kinsella predicted, HIV has largely moved into minority populations. The biggest national story on HIV has to be the dramatic increase in seroconversions among Latinos and especially blacks. Even though young black men are being hit particularly hard, the epidemic has been less selective for black women, who represent one of the fastest-rising groups seroconverting.

You wouldn’t know it from media coverage. The 2004 study found that only 3 percent of stories focused on minorities. Maybe this was part of that overall AIDS fatigue -- maybe the public was burned out on AIDS stories overall (or at least assignment editors believed they were).

Many observers don’t accept that as the reason. They believe that the culprit is America’s continuing legacy of racism. As rates of infection dropped among white gay men, so did interest in HIV -- among them as well as the population at large. Longtime activists like Peter Staley have been complaining that the gay community no longer pays much attention to HV/AIDS. And if they don’t care, why should anyone else?

When the media do report on what’s going on in the black community, the fact that they’re reporting it is treated like a major event. That’s what happened after The New York Times published a front-page feature on the epidemic’s impact on life for black gay youth just a few weeks ago. Activists treated it like a glass of water in the desert.

If you think that media coverage of HIV is only a side issue, talk to Robin Stevens. The researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that media attention on HIV as "an African thing" and even more stories about HIV in general results in fewer African Americans getting tested.

For the blacks in her study, Stevens found that "media coverage was seen as a source of shame and embarrassment. As a result, they seem to have gone into denial," whereas whites are "more likely to experience news stories as a source of education and information."

Her conclusion? Blacks not only pay more attention to the message if it comes from black media, but find it less intimidating. Which means that perhaps we should be worrying less about AIDS fatigue in the media in general, and concentrating on supporting increased coverage in places like Eboony magazine and Black Entertainment Television.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

What’s Happening Now

This story is part of our special report titled "What’s Happening Now." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


  • DanC, 2013-12-23 18:18:41

    "...30th anniversary of the first CDC report in 1981 on a strange cancer and a very rare form of pneumonia appearing in gay men in New York and San Francisco." -- The first CDC report of anything AIDS-related occurred in June 1981 when five men in Los Angeles were reported to have contracted pneumocystis carinii.

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