End of the Aids story?

Those of you with “Aids fatigue”, brighten up. A pleasant illusion is coming your way. It’s this: now that the battle for the government to provide anti-retrovirals has been won, you can look forward to a decline in the coverage of Aids.
The reason is that the politics of the story just got a whole lot softer.

Something to celebrate? In many ways, yes. While countless lives slipped away unnecessarily, government obduracy and obfuscation bedevilled this country. Today, at long last, the leadership has had to change. Thirty cheers to the media whose unremitting pressure was surely a factor.

But we also need to worry now that the major political drama is over.

Gone will be the dramatic headlines about Thabo Mbeki knowing no one killed by Aids, Manto Tshabala-Msimang’s combative antics or Stella Sigcau’s penchant for peach-brew potions. The basic Aids story will simply not generate that kind of coverage.

The problem is that unlike the politics, the basic Aids story is not going away. Worse, in fact. Because of the anti-retrovirals, that story is about to change in important ways; yet, with the political drama now behind us, we risk being uninformed about the coming developments.

Here are some of the trends ahead:

  • Once the drugs start prolonging people’s lives, “death sentence” stigmatism and its twin of denialism will lose some of their force. The fear of disclosing your HIV status will weaken. Such positive changes will make media coverage easier. Yet at the same time the reduced intensity will probably also mean reduced media interest and thence reduced coverage.

  • Less blame will be apportioned with regard to infections and the public agencies responsible for policy and implementation. There will be less “them” and “us” sentiment, and less naïve fear of “contamination”. These changes will be a major story, but ironically they also entail diminished drama and conflict and therefore a drop in newsworthiness.

  • Sexuality and gender relations may become easier to talk about as anti-retroviral treatment becomes more commonplace. In theory, this could open the way for more journalism on this highly personal subject. Not in the crass Ananova.com way, but in terms of portraying real negotiated relationships. Somehow, however, I doubt that we will see decent reportage in this arena.

  • Unwanted effects of the drug roll-out may emerge. Will drug-resistant virus strains develop due to erratic consumption of the anti-retrovirals? Another issue: will the availability of these life-perpetuating medicines lead to less care being taken about safer sex? And will the media tell us if these things come to pass, or are these kind of trends not as “sexy” a story as the politics have been?

    All these matters are just some of the possible changes ahead, along with my predictions about poor media performance in covering them. We can also look at what will not change, and what we can expect from media in this regard.

    According to a UNAids and World Health Organisation (WHO) study released this week ahead of World Aids Day, the epidemic “remains rampant”. The study estimates that between three million and 3,4-million people in sub-Saharan Africa were infected over the past year. By my count, that is an average of close to 9 000 people a day. Repeat: close to 9 000 new infections each day.

    So, stories about prevention campaigns and vaccine trials ought to stay top of your news interest. If you can find the coverage, that is.

    The same study estimates that 2,3-million people were killed by Aids in sub-Saharan Africa over the past year, and there are now about 26,6-million people living with the virus. All this in the continent of New Partnership for Africa’s Development hopes and African Union promises.

    At the end of last year, South Africans made up 5,3-million of these HIV-positive individuals. Taking stock of these figures, the UNAids-WHO report declares: “Aids deaths will continue to increase rapidly over the next five years at least; in short the worst still lies ahead.”

    In other words, the band will be playing for a long time yet. As a relentless repeat of a well-worn song, it is unlikely to command major media attention or even to make a major impact on public opinion.

    Also unchanged on the Aids landscape is what the UNAids-WHO report calls the “astounding” situation where “most countries with widespread epidemics do not yet have extensive programmes in place to provide appropriate care to orphans”.

    This policy failure is a huge political story, and holds out a new cause for media pressure. Even where there are partial policies, such as extending the age eligibility of child-support grants in South Africa, monitoring the implementation is also a story. Whether this arena will replace the media’s old political crusade needs to be seen.

    Whatever happens, the critical question now is whether, with the demise of the major Aids angle of the past three years, you will be kept informed of other aspects of Aids. 

    Here’s a challenge: will you try to keep yourself informed by looking elsewhere if necessary? Or enjoy the illusion that comes of consuming blinkered media?

    If this does concern you, what you may also want to do is scrutinise what kind of job gets done in regard to those stories that will get featured. Here’s how to apply your critical media literacy skills the next time you encounter—or seek to dodge—an Aids story. Check for:

  • Direct impact: Does the story produce a response in you—scare, anger, depress, inspire you? Does it make you do something—talk, write, set aside time or money, insist on using condoms? Or is it eyes-glazing-over stuff that alienates you from the topic?

  • Enlightenment: Does the story educate you? Do you have new knowledge and understanding that empower you to process a response to the problem?
  • Framing: Does the language used create a sense of passive victims? Does it reinforce taboos around an HIV-positive status by using words like “admit” or resorting to pseudonyms with reference to people living with Aids?
  • Ethics: Does the story respect the rights of poor people and children to be the objects of coverage? Does it treat them with dignity and report on them with their consent and in their own words?
  • Sensationalism: Is the story alarmist, falsely hope-generating, overly dramatic or simplistic?
  • Voices: is the narrative about the experts, or about the stakeholders on the ground like people living with Aids, their care-givers and the groups at risk? Does it integrate the two levels? Is there a successful link between the general and the particular, the policy issues and the people in practice?
  • My suggestion: give the item a rating and give some feedback to the journalist involved.

    I would have hoped that the welcome downgrading of politics in South Africa’s Aids story could enable other issues to heave into view; that it could also enable us to see all of these much more clearly.

    Instead, it seems that for many editors—and for many of us who fork out attention or money to the industry—the Aids story has lost its biggest angle and is basically over. The interest has gone.

    In this new phase, I don’t see the media giving us the Aids coverage that we need—even if it’s coverage that some of us would rather not want. Maybe it’s time for us to tell editors the struggle ain’t over.

    E-mail Guy Berger directly if you have a question about this article.

    Guy Berger is head of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University and deputy chair of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef). He was recently nominated for the World Technology Awards.

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