The Media And HIV/AIDS: What Should We Do?
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.
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
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).
News Dissector columns available online at: www.mediachannel.org/views/dissector