SPECIAL SERIES : The AIDS Epidemic
Media Coverage of AIDS Epidemic Steadily Declining
Stories continually disappear from the headlines.
April 11, 2006 12:42 PM
When the AIDS epidemic emerged to the public eye in 1981, headlines repeatedly splashed death-sentence messages to reflect the horrific impact of the disease. Today, the majority of these headlines have disappeared – while the numbers of those infected have not.
“I definitely think there’s been a change in coverage,” said Roberto Ordenana, director of community programs for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.
The study also concluded there has been an increase of coverage of the global epidemic – particularly in the African and Asian populations. AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women, aged 25-34, according to a study by UC San Francisco. This segment makes up the fastest rising portion of new infections in the United States.
“AIDS coverage is still strong, though in places like San Francisco it isn't as emotionally charged because the gay community, in particular, isn't being decimated in the way it was in the 1980s,” said Phil Kipper, the BECA department chair. “For this reason, the public may not be paying as much attention to the coverage that is there.”
In San Francisco, however, gay men represent the highest numbers of HIV infections. While new estimates say the numbers of HIV infections of gay men in San Francisco have decreased by about 20 percent since 2001, 87 percent of all HIV infections in the city are in gay men.
Kipper said early coverage of the AIDS epidemic was persistent and in the forefront of the news because there was tremendous shock at the number of deaths and the fact that whole segments of the community were being devastated.
The media initially bombarded the public with coverage of disease control efforts and the various treatments, but publicity has ceased in the past few years.
“I wouldn't say that the drop in coverage was due to (reader) burnout,” Kipper said. “It had more to do with the perception that the threat had eased.”
“My sense is that the media perceived that the public had tired of the story,” said Dr. Betsy Blosser, a BECA professor at SF State. Blosser said there is nothing sensational right now, which is keeping it out of the limelight.
She said the public feels inundated with coverage to the point that they feel they need to “tune out” to deal with enormity of the story.
John Burks, SF State journalism department chair, said so much has already been written about the epidemic that journalists need to find a new angle on the story.
“It’s a real challenge to find something fresh that will truly count to these readers,” he said. “They’ve sort of OD’d on reading about it.”
Burks said there is still coverage of AIDS, but these stories are often buried inside of the newspaper.
An October 2003 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 72 percent of the U.S. population retrieved the majority of its information about HIV and AIDS from the media.
With a decline in coverage, a bigger issue might be on the rise: Younger generations – that are not able to remember the negative consequences of the disease reported in earlier years and who see new treatments controlling the disease – are now becoming sexually active.
“I think students are as informed as they want to be,” said 19-year-old Jasmine Mitose, a sophomore theater major in outreach and publication with Queer Alliance.
Blosser said the media now have to find a way to reach out to those who have tuned out coverage, along with this younger group, to warn them of the risks involved.
“It’s among the most horrific diseases visited upon mankind,” Burks said. “If it took hold of the U.S. ... it could decimate the population as it has decimated the population in Africa. So is it important? Yeah.”
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