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Overall Media Coverage of AIDS Epidemic Decreasing, Shifting From Domestic to Global AIDS Issues, Study Says

Overall media coverage of the AIDS epidemic is decreasing, and the focus of such coverage has shifted from domestic to global issues, according to a study included as a supplement to the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Researchers from the Kaiser Family Foundation and Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted a comprehensive review of more than 9,000 HIV/AIDS-related news stories appearing since 1981 in four national newspapers: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today; in three regional papers from areas that were "particularly hard-hit" by the epidemic: San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times; and on three network news programs: "ABC World News Tonight," "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News." Researchers also examined news stories from London's Times in order to compare U.S. print media to European print media, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation release.


Researchers found that total media coverage of HIV/AIDS increased from the early 1980s through the decade and peaked in 1987. Aside from minor peaks in coverage following Magic Johnson's 1991 announcement of his HIV-positive status, the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in 1996 and increased attention to the global epidemic in 2001, overall coverage of HIV/AIDS has declined steadily since 1987. Although the decline in media coverage appears to mirror a drop in the number of new AIDS cases in the United States, the decline began six years before the number of new AIDS cases began to decrease. In addition, the decline in coverage continued as the total number of AIDS cases in the United States rose above 500,000, according to the release (Kaiser Family Foundation release, 3/1). Over the 22-year time period, 94% of the stories included in the review had U.S. datelines and 86% of the stories presented a U.S.-only perspective on the epidemic. However, the number of stories presenting some global aspect of the epidemic increased 118% between 1997 and 2002, and the number of articles with a domestic-only focus decreased 57% over the same time period. In addition, the study found that after 1986, media coverage of HIV/AIDS among gay men accounted for 5% or less of the overall coverage. Other specific populations disproportionately affected by the epidemic also received "relatively little" coverage, with 3% of stories focusing on U.S. minorities, 3% on teens and young adults and 2% on women, the study says. Overall, the focus of coverage has shifted away from stories about HIV transmission and social issues toward stories about government funding and philanthropic efforts, the study says.


The overall decline in the total number of stories on HIV/AIDS and stories focusing on domestic AIDS issues could be evidence of what some have called "AIDS fatigue on the part of media organizations," the study says. However, the decline in coverage also is consistent with "the usual and customary news practice to focus on other things when an epidemic switches to a global focus," the study says. Regardless, a "more important trend" is the decline in the number of stories with a "consumer education component," the study says, adding that the trend is "particularly disturbing" in light of the fact that the number of new AIDS cases in 2002 increased for the first time since 1993. The findings raise the question of whether media outlets covering the epidemic "have a responsibility to educate the public, as opposed to focusing only on reporting the news," the study says. Although the media's shift to a more global focus on the epidemic "is particularly important given its enormity and growing impact in many parts of the world," maintaining "some focus on the domestic epidemic while telling these and other new stories will remain a challenge for journalists competing for limited news space," the study concludes (Brodie et al., "AIDS at 21: Media Coverage of the HIV Epidemic 1981-2002," 3/1).


This "ambitious study ... illustrates how, from the beginning, the AIDS story has been driven by a series of big, attention-grabbing events," Kai Wright, senior editor of the New York City-based news magazine City Limits, writes in a piece published in the March/April issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Although the study does not address "how much the hot story of the time colored how life with HIV was depicted," it gives a "disturbing hint" that this approach to the coverage misses the impact of the disease on minorities, Wright says, adding that although African Americans account for half of all new infections each year, they "have rarely been involved in the epidemic's high drama." The "quest for a dramatic story angle" is not only the fault of the media but also of AIDS advocates who "insist on framing [the epidemic] as an emergency rather than [as] a lasting concern" and who have sought to create a "sense of urgency ... by focusing on hyperbolic scenarios," Wright says. As a result, there is a "myopic understanding" of the AIDS epidemic and people are presented with "something that demands our attention for just a few fleeting, hysterical moments when we're actually facing a systemic, decades-long problem," Wright concludes (Wright, Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2004).


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