Press coverage of HIV/AIDS: Is it effective?

Trevor Cullen

Lecturer in Journalism at Edith Cowan University
Western Australia


Dr Peter Piot, executive director of the United Nations Aids programme (UNAIDS) stated at the World Congress on HIV/AIDS in Barcelona (Piot 2002) that 40 million people are already infected with the HIV virus and this number could double by 2020. Developing countries are worst affected with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for more than 22 million HIV infections. The pandemic is still in its infancy and Asia, with more than 60 per cent of the world's population, is destined to become the new epicentre. Moreover, Papua New Guinea, Australia's next door neigbour, is already suffering the effects of a rapidly expanding epidemic. What approach should the news media adopt in the face of such a devastating public health crisis?

Quantitative content analysis of press coverage of HIV/AIDS in Africa, US, Australia and Europe (mostly notably France and Britain) revealed a common pattern: initially a slow response in which certain high-risk groups such as homosexuals and drug addicts were targeted as the main offenders and sufferers. This was followed by increased coverage of HIV/AIDS with the acknowledged risk of HIV infection in the wider heterosexual population. Finally, the disease was 'routinized' and treated as just another routine health story. These three distinct stages of reporting closely resembled what Downs (1972) described as the 'issue-attention cycle' - the rise, peak and decline of interest by the media in a well-established health issue - and resulted in various degrees of stereotyping, sensationalism and complacency. This approach proved to be an inadequate way to report HIV/AIDS, especially since the increasing rate of HIV infections in many countries did not correspond to the type and frequency of news items.

The author advocates a different approach - a return to the use of Mobilising Information (MI). This concept of reporting on health and medical issues was developed by researchers Kristiansen and Harding in the mid-1980s. It encourages the press to move from a purely informational role to one that mobilises a public response rather than mere passive acceptance of this potentially crippling HIV/AIDS epidemic. This is vital in poor developing countries where anti-retroviral medicines are either unavailable or too expensive and where there is little political will or financial support to make a difference.

Pub Talk | 2004

New: 16 January 2003 | Now: 9 May, 2015