The Media And HIV/AIDS: What Should We Do?

Danny Schechter



sorry if you were given "unnecessary offense." So sayeth the BBC as

part of an apology for a stunt concocted for a TV show that plays practical

jokes on the public. "Aunty," as the Beeb is known, hired a child

actor to pose as an African orphan and go door to door for a charity allegedly

serving other African orphans. After a woman gave the child some money, a crate

was delivered to her door with a seven-year-old inside, while a film crew

recorded her horrified reaction.


Ha, ha!



woman was shocked and promptly called the police who ordered the BBC crew to

cease and desist because they were causing a "breach of the peace."

Some people weren’t laughing, including a spokesperson for Save the Children,

who remarked: "It seems extremely surprising that the BBC would act in such

an irresponsible and exploitative manner. It is troubling that it trivialized

some very important and often complicated issues in this way."


doubly distressing about this is that if the BBC, the Taj Mahal of broadcasting

outlets, plays these kinds of games, what can we expect from the rest of the

media? The sad truth is that the plight of tens of millions of children orphaned

through the AIDS pandemic, according to UNAIDS reports, rarely makes it into

popular media at all. It is one of the all too invisible dimensions of a global

crisis that is covered episodically and often in a superficial manner. If there

were ever a problem that deserves a real "breach of the peace," it is

this one.


The Children I have been following this crisis closely while wearing another

hat: media consultant to the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Foundation (FXB), and its

non-governmental, action-oriented Association. FXB was founded by French

countess Albina du Boisrouvray, who sold off most of her possessions to endow it

with $100 million, after her son Francois, for whom it is named, died in an

airplane crash in 1986. She advocated a health and human rights framework

through which to understand the AIDS crisis. She plunged into leading a global

effort, building the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard’s School

of Public Health and underwriting the work of the late Dr. Jonathan Mann, a

pioneer in AIDS research. Mann and his colleagues published the two-volume study

"AIDS in the World" in the early ’90s when many self-styled

"experts" were still convinced that AIDS was just a "gay

disease" in the West. Mann warned of the spread of HIV-AIDS to the

developing world and of an impending global disaster.


he was ignored by most media outlets or branded an alarmist by many in the field

who clung to the idea that AIDS was just a virus like many others that preceded

it, not an emerging social and economic crisis. Mann showed how AIDS targets

marginalized peoples whose rights are neglected and violated. His predictions

and the work of the FXB-funded Global Aids Policy Coalition turned out to

understate, not overstate, the problem. Today, a Jonathan Mann memorial lecture

opens the International World AIDS conference. If the world and the media had

listened to Albina du Boisrouvray and Jonathan Mann, more might have been done

to avert the raging spread of a pandemic that is far from being controlled,

saving millions of lives in the process. Globalvision was one of the few media

outlets to profile Mann’s work in its "Rights & Wrongs" human

rights TV series, in 1994, before he perished, also in a plane crash, in 1998.


Real Challenges Jonathan Mann’s perspective, and Albina’s experiences, are still

important for those of us trying to encourage more media coverage of the real

challenges of HIV/AIDS. The orphans issue is its beacon, although still not

fully recognized as such. A media focus on the plight of these children -

putting names to the numbers – could help ignite more compassionate concern

worldwide about the whole problem.


a recent appearance before a congressional hearing, Albina sketched the scale of

the problem: "If you factor in all of the affected children – the street

kids in the world’s mega-cities as well those affected by the ravages of AIDS -

there may be as many as 200 million children at risk on all continents. 40

million in 23 countries in Africa, and what will inevitably surface in India and

Asia, China, Russia and the Caribbean. Yes, this is a larger estimate than the

ones usually used, and it is scary, if not numbing. But we can’t deny the

evidence. It is a fact that seven and a half percent of all youth on the planet

are affected." (For more up-to-date reporting on the issue, visit FXB’s new

orphan alert Web site.)


would think these facts would propel this story up the news agenda. Not yet! My

colleague Carol Devoe spends a good part of her time calling and faxing

journalists and trying to place stories about the orphans issue. "It’s so

disheartening," she told me. "This is such a compelling story that

journalists should be falling over each other to do it. But many calls are not

even returned, unless the story is attached to a high-profile donation like one

by the Gates Foundation. In order to motivate journalists to cover the story you

first have to become a source on all aspects of the crisis, then build a

relationship. Journalists want a comfort factor with you before they are willing

to take what you send seriously. Other journalists give me the brush-off. The

irony is that because of our fieldwork in fifteen countries, FXB has vital

firsthand information to offer, and Albina is an inspirational leader, always a

step ahead of the bureaucrats. You’d think they would be banging down her door.

The top media in France gets her importance, but ours are still behind. When

AIDS is covered, the big bureaucratic agencies with their platoons of press

people spin it a way NGOs like ours rarely can. Here in the United States the

story is still a hard sell, but we have no alternative but to keep knocking at

the media door. Hopefully, it will open."


Accountability! Laurie Garrett of Newsday, who has been doing an exemplary job

of covering this crisis, called on her colleagues to do much more in a talk I

attended at the Durban AIDS conference in July, which has been reprinted by the

Columbia Journalism Review. "It’s the worst health crisis in at least six,

seven centuries. And it isn’t only a health crisis. The media are finally paying

attention to this. I congratulate you and your colleagues for doing this, but

the problem is not going to go away, and I hope the media don’t go away either,

because you are the key to breaking through on this issue."


a Pulitzer Prize winner whose book "The Coming Plague" is a must read,

was angry: "We have to name corrupt names, we have to demand

accountability. We have to demand the truth. Those of you who are in science and

public health here in this room, and who just applauded what I said, often speak

of ‘using the media’ to get out your message. You are fools. Pardon me, but

nobody ‘uses’ journalists. Except, of course, corrupt officials, dictators and

other ne’er-do-wells. If the media are behaving properly, they are skeptical of

each and every one of you in this room, every single day, and demand the truth

of you. How are you spending those donated funds? What programs are you

implementing with them? Are you letting your egos and your careers get in the

way of doing what is best for this epidemic?"


response in the media world has been minimal. In the United States throughout

the last few months, no reporters to my knowledge even asked presidential

candidates about AIDS. It was a non-issue. When high-profile figures are not

pressed to speak out, the issue remains on the media’s back burner. So it is

time to do more proactive reporting and do it better.


Just A Disease Remember: Diseases kill people. Pandemics kill families,

communities and countries and the hopes for development of whole continents. For

years, the AIDS world spoke almost entirely about the challenge of AIDS as a

disease that had to be prevented and treated. Billions of dollars have been

raised for medical research with hopes that a cure can be found and a vaccine

invented. That may take years. Also, important co-factors like poverty,

inadequate education and human rights abuses of women and children were largely

ignored. When you read the reports of UNAIDS, you are exposed to problems that

constitute a global public-health emergency. Within five years, one South

African will die of an AIDS-related illness every minute unless action is taken

now to curb AIDS and treat its victims, according to a leading insurance

industry official there, as quoted in Johannesburg’s Mail and Guardian, which

leads in what regular coverage there is. Yet media coverage is nowhere

commensurate with the scale or impact of this problem.


is distressing that even in South Africa, which hosted the first global AIDS

conference in the developing world in Durban last July, the story is

underreported. Media Tenor’s South Africa office has been monitoring the

reporting, where one story – President Thabo Mbeki’s challenge to conventional

AIDS thinking – has received the most attention, along with that country’s

policies and relationships with pharmaceutical companies. Other coverage has

been minimal (well below sports, crime and politics) until the conference, when

it spiked for a week then quickly declined again. This is also true of other

media outlets on a continent that is the epicenter of the crisis, where 19

million have died and an estimated 23 million are HIV-positive.


is a global catastrophe, an issue with economic, social and security

implications. The media have an important role to play in raising awareness,

combating "compassion fatigue" and focusing attention on what is being

done and what more must be done.


is no longer someone else’s problem.


is the life and death challenge of our times, and we are all affected even if we

are not all infected.


Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel and the author of

"News Dissector" (Electronpress.com) and "Falun Gong’s

Challenge to China" (Akashicbooks.com).


Dissector columns available online at:  www.mediachannel.org/views/dissector


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