About AIDS

Declining AIDS media coverage ... rising HIV infections

When a problem is ignored, it doesn't just go away; it may even get worse. Public awareness is one of our great challenges with HIV, and big-guns research has reconfirmed a phenomenon we have observed anecdotally for some years.

Media coverage of HIV/AIDS has fallen drastically, and the few stories that do appear today focus primarily on global, not domestic, issues. Princeton researchers and the Kaiser Family Foundation reviewed news coverage, 1981-2003, appearing in seven major U.S. newspapers, on TV network news, and in the London Times.

AIDS stories began in 1981, peaked in 1987, and have declined steadily since then. Yes, U.S. AIDS cases have fallen, too, but the news decline began six years before the AIDS caseload began to decrease. In the last five years, global issues stories increased 118%, while domestic-focused stories decreased 57%. In addition, after 1986, HIV/AIDS among gay men – overwhelmingly the most impacted U.S. population – has been virtually ignored. Overall, the focus has shifted away from HIV transmission, treatment, and social issues, and toward articles on funding.

We've been discussing this for years. HIV services professionals have identified "AIDS fatigue" among some segments of U.S. society; perhaps that also applies to media organizations. Others blame America's "23-minute attention span," devoted only to hot topics and attention-grabbing events.

I provide classes and training for an average 800 people each month in Central Texas, much of that at area universities and colleges. It's telling that almost no one younger than age 30 has ever had any real opportunity for AIDS education.

These two phenomena are linked. And they, in turn, are linked to worrisome statistics: New HIV infections continue at about 40,000 yearly; and in 2002, the number of new full AIDS cases began increasing again for the first time in a decade.

Americans do not take AIDS seriously anymore because people aren't dropping dead as fast. The possibility of HIV infection is ignored in making personal behavior choices. Funding for care and prevention is falling. Our leaders across all institutions and segments of society avoid HIV/AIDS, preferring more "comfortable" topics that do not demand honest discussion about sex and drugs.

The Princeton/Kaiser study noted with concern a dearth of articles with a "consumer education component" and bluntly raised the question: Do media outlets have "a responsibility to educate the public, as opposed to focusing only on reporting the news?" We believe they do. Until HIV/AIDS is again a topic on, or at least near, news media's front burner, AIDS will continue to be a leading cause of death among our nation's young people.

Sandy Bartlett

Community Education Coordinator, AIDS Services of Austin

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