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Is HIV still worth reporting?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 2 Sep 2014 17:30 GMT
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A medical officer takes down a woman's details before she takes an HIV/AIDS test at a mobile testing unit in Ndeeba, a suburb of Uganda's capital Kampala. Picture May 16, 2014, REUTERS/Edward Echwalu
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More than 30 years after the AIDS epidemic began, HIV is no longer a story that engages journalists or the public, and when it is covered, it is often sensationalised or based on information that is out of date.

These are some of the findings of a report being presented to a parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS at the House of Commons in London today.

Admittedly, there's been massive progress in preventing and treating HIV since the 1980s, when contracting the virus that causes AIDS was seen as a death sentence.

The latest UNAIDS report shows that AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 35 percent since a peak of 2.3 million in 2005. New infections are also down by 38 percent to 2.1 million since 2001.

Yet 35 million people are still living with HIV, and only 37 percent of those who need anti-retroviral therapy (ART), a cocktail of drugs that can keep HIV in check, have access to them.

HIV still stigmatises. Many people are still too afraid to get tested - or even, in some cases, use condoms, for fear their partners will accuse them of being unfaithful.

"This is still an issue but it's not out there in the public consciousness," said Sophie Chalk, author of "HIV and stigma: The media challenge". "There's a whole generation who are not emotionally engaged with this at all and think it's something that happens to other people," she told me.

Clearly, the media still has a crucial role to play to inform, educate and dispel the stigma relating to HIV. Yet all too often, journalists and their editors reinforce stereotypes in their reporting of the epidemic, Chalk said.

"News tends to reinforce the stigma and stereotypes - that HIV positive people are promiscuous; they don't have good values and commit crimes - because that's what sells papers."

In other cases, journalists don't want to cover HIV because it's a taboo even to them.

"You don't engage with something if you are afraid of the topic, and there is a terror about HIV/AIDS here which has never gone away," James Hall, an American journalist in Swaziland, is quoted as saying in the report.

Other problems arise when journalists seem unaware of the latest research, according to Simon Collins from HIV i-Base, a British NGO that seeks to provide timely and up-to-date information about HIV treatment.

"Media stories are often based on information that is out of date. Firstly, treatment now lets people lead long and active lives. Secondly, it dramatically reduces any chance of further transmission. You would be hard pushed to catch HIV from having sex with someone on treatment, with or without a condom," the report quotes Collins as saying.

Then there's "HIV fatigue" which means many journalists have lost interest.
"We can't make HIV the interesting story it was eight years ago when millions were dying of AIDS in Africa. Coverage needs to evolve to the more nuanced challenges of the AIDS response but it hasn't," said James Robertson, from the India HIV/Alliance advocacy group.

"The media haven't caught up with the story that people live longer now. Either journalists have not got enough information or they just don't want to flag up the positives about HIV," a person living with HIV in Swaziland said.

However, the media landscape isn't all gloomy.            

The report identified journalism training as having a positive impact on HIV reporting as did the creation of global networks of journalists who write on these issues, such as the "Key Correspondents" group.

It also highlighted the success of several TV dramas, such as South Africa's Soul City series, in helping to change attitudes.

(Editing by Tim Pearce; timothy.pearce@thomsonreuters.com)

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