Media Can Provide More Comprehensive Coverage of HIV, AIDS

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Nadra Kareem Nittle
December 14, 2011

When World AIDS Day arrived on the first day of December, so did a deluge of media attention on HIV and AIDS. But the print and broadcast coverage routinely fails to mention that infections aren’t declining, it doesn’t cite social and economic barriers facing those with the virus and it frequently doesn’t mention readily available assistance programs.

Instead, health advocates say the media give a disproportionate amount of space and airtime to advancements in treatment while leaving the impression that the AIDS crisis is over in America. Left unsaid is that crisis and treatment options are worsening for the poor and people of color.

Interviews with health experts and a review of the coverage show a coverage pattern that doesn’t go far enough to explain some of the data and provide audiences with information that will help them understand the actual state of HIV and AIDS in America.

For instance, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study released last month found that just 28 percent of people with HIV are controlling the virus with appropriate medications. But media outlets such as CNN, which reported the story, did not examine how economic barriers contribute to this problem other than to state that many people can’t afford treatment.

U.S. News & World Report and MSNBC made no reference to how financial situations impact people’s likelihood of obtaining long-term care for HIV or what resources exist for poor people with the virus.

Low-income people who have HIV and lack health coverage may qualify for federally funded AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP), but none of the aforementioned media outlets noted this in reports about the CDC study. This omission is especially problematic given the assertion by LaMont Evans, CEO of Healthy Black Communities Inc. (HBC) in Atlanta, that many people aren’t aware of ADAP or even that they qualify for assistance.

“I don’t think people know there’s a whole system in place to take care of them should they have HIV,” Evans says.

Brian Risley, program manager for the treatment education program of AIDS Project Los Angeles, agrees. He says the national recession has left people with HIV and AIDS vulnerable to lapses in care, another story not widely covered in the media.

“We’ve had a lot of clients who’ve lost their jobs,” Risley says. “They don’t know about ADAP. They’ve never had to know about ADAP, but they can’t afford their COBRA” health insurance.

Finances aren’t the only barrier to treatment. In communities of color, misperceptions about HIV and AIDS drugs, stigma about the virus and discomfort in speaking candidly about gay lifestyles may put individuals at higher risk for suspending treatment.

Although minorities make up approximately 70 percent of new AIDS cases and HIV infections, according to The Foundation for AIDS Research, the spate of news articles about the CDC study did not mention communities of color, or they failed to outline why such communities are vulnerable to care gaps.

The media could have obtained this information to help provide more comprehensive coverage by contacting groups such as APLA or HBC Inc., which spearheads National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The 11th annual awareness day is scheduled Feb. 7.

“The media misses an opportunity to talk about HIV stigma, about sex and sexual behavior stigma, about being gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgender,” says Gabriel J. McGowan, APLA’s director of communications. “There is a great lack of willingness to have open conversations about this.”

Stigma about the virus may lead to people not accessing care because they’re afraid to simply walk into an organization that provides HIV and AIDS services.

“This has been going on for quite some time,” HBC’s Evans says. “If an organization has HIV and AIDS in its name and your friends see you walking into that organization, they will think, ‘She must be living with HIV.’ ”

Moreover, health experts say the media has done little to address fears of people who are living with the disease and are too embarrassed to seek treatment.

Risley says distrust of doctors, medicine and pharmaceutical companies have led some people of color living with HIV and AIDS to eschew treatment. The perception that HIV drugs produce debilitating side effects has also led to many individuals skipping medications.

Risley notes that drugs now on the market aren’t as hard on the system as earlier ones used to treat the virus. In the African-American community, another barrier to treatment, he says, is the “belief that pharmaceutical companies are just invested in keeping people sick.”

Risley says an AIDS vaccine doesn’t exist because the scientific community is constantly learning new information about the virus. The media often covers advances in AIDS research, but that can be misleading because it takes the focus off the fact that the number of new HIV infections has remained steady in the United States with about 50,000 new cases annually. 

“I think there’s a perception in the media that the epidemic is over,” McGowan says.

On the contrary, three decades after the discovery of HIV, the virus not only continues to infect tens of thousands of Americans yearly but is also coinciding with the aging process in those who have lived with it for years, McGowan says.

Aging people with HIV are coupling care for the virus with treatment for illnesses that often strike the older population, such as Type II diabetes. Considering that some people have lived with HIV for 30 years, McGowan says he thinks the media should look at how aging and HIV overlap.

Meanwhile, Evans suggests that to fully show economic and social barriers faced by people with HIV, the media should chronicle an individual living with the virus for a length of time. Particularly beneficial for communities of color, he says, would be a depiction of a person who remains productive in life and hasn’t given up.

Risley says more than 50 percent of people with the virus suffer from depression.

“I’d like to see someone get their college degree,” Evans says, “as opposed to those who got sicker and died.”


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