Disappointing Data: AIDS is not that important to cable news

When important news about HIV and/or AIDS breaks, do not tune into the evening news on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN. They probably won’t report it.

That is the basic lesson of an analysis of coverage of the issue by Media Matters, for 2013 and the first quarter of 2014. Despite some rather notable breakthroughs, developments and announcements that have taken place over the last year, HIV/AIDS is not a priority issue for the leading cable news networks.

cable news HIVCNN lead the way with a whopping 11 mentions, in 2013. Its more opinion-oriented competitors did worse with only 4 mentions each. To make matters worse, the few mentions did not often involve an actual expert on HIV/AIDS.

This year is not looking all that much better. MSNBC is holding steady with its pace of one story every three months. Fox News and CNN are lagging in their paltry coverage of the topic. It has not been for a lack of stories to cover.

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March saw the announcement that a second baby born with HIV was in remission after receiving immediate treatment after birth. There were also important reports such as the first ever confirmed case of lesbian-transmitted HIV, new research on gene altering to fight HIV and a New Yorker report on the high rate of HIV in the US south. All four stories were reported in a month period between March and April.

The prime time programming on the three cable news networks include news reporting, but rely heavily on Opinion news shows such as The O’Rielly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews and Piers Morgan Tonight.

In the few cases where HIV is reported, it is the sensationalist stories that get the most attention. In 2013, two of the top stories reported by CNN on HIV/AIDS involved a man who knowingly infected his sex partners with the virus and a dentist who may have infected his patients due to not sanitizing his equipment.

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“Rather than inform the public of the realities of living with HIV/AIDS, these kinds of stories encourage panic and further stigmatize an already marginalized community, which in turn worsens the problem of attempting to combat the spread of HIV,” blogs Luke Brinker for Media Matters.

The gay rights group GLAAD reacted to the report by saying that media is vital to providing essential information to people who have or are at risk of contracting the virus. One example is the ongoing debate over pre-exposure prophylaxis as a way to prevent an HIV positive partner from spreading the virus to his or her HIV negative partner.

“The media needs to report sufficiently and fairly on HIV/AIDS in order to open a dialogue and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS,” said GLAAD, in a blog post.

By not reporting on HIV/AIDS and being drawn to only the more sensational stories, cable news networks are promoting stigma and fear about the virus.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.