Keeping Aids in the headlines

‘Aids journalism should do what any good journalism does,” said United States reporter Mark Schoofs, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for an eight-part Village Voice series on Aids in Africa. “That is, reveal misdeeds by the powerful.”

Schoofs was addressing an audience of news chiefs, doctors, academics and government officials, who had gathered at the Nelson Mandela Foundation last Monday (World Aids Day) to debate the local media’s coverage of the pandemic. The statement was just one of many responses to a looming dilemma: how to keep South Africa’s most important story in the headlines now that the government has reversed its stance on anti-retrovirals?

The problem, as research presented at the beginning of the seminar by freelance journalist Alan Finlay conclusively revealed, is that when it comes to Aids reporting in South Africa, “conflict, key personalities and government positions are strong indicators of newsworthiness”.

Finlay’s work, conducted under the auspices of the Wits University journalism and media studies department and the Perinatal HIV Research Unit, analysed HIV/Aids content in 35 South African newspapers during the periods March to May 2002 and March to May 2003. The quantitative data confirmed that 50% of editorial messages across both periods either dealt directly with the conflict between the government and Aids activists or took a position in relation to the conflict.

Digging deeper into the findings, Finlay showed that the government had been the primary newsroom source on HIV/Aids conflict topics in the periods under review, and that key personalities in the conflict — notably Nelson Mandela, Zackie Achmat, President Thabo Mbeki, and Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang — had a significant impact on the news agenda.

“[T]he score counts for both former president Nelson Mandela and President Mbeki decrease in 2003 ... perhaps a result of deliberate decisions to withdraw from controversial commentary on HIV/Aids,” Finlay noted.

Of course, given the long-awaited triumph of the activists and, to a lesser extent, the media (Finlay’s research further revealed that 37% of messages opposed government policy, against 7% supportive), all the above news sources are currently running close to empty.

So, framed another way, the question becomes: How to fill the tank?

Ida Jooste, a producer of SABC’s current affairs programme Fokus, provided some strong pointers through her research into the recall of HIV/Aids-related news stories in Cato Manor, a poor urban community in Durban. The result of nine focus group discussions and 20 interviews, Jooste’s findings let the seminar in on the “overwhelming need” in poverty-stricken areas for news depicting the ravages and effects of the disease .

“The responses to questions testing news needs provided the most clear preference trends,” Jooste observed. “Given a choice between more HIV news or less HIV news, all but two respondents wanted more news on HIV to appear in print and broadcast media. A content choice of ‘ordinary people’, ‘government and policy’ or ‘scientific developments’, led an overwhelming 80% of respondents to express a wish for more news about ‘people like us’, or ‘people living with Aids’.”

In the presentation by Schoofs, these findings on the “human angle” were augmented. Schoofs referred to the Just call me Lucky column in the Sowetan, a “ground-breaking” enterprise initiated by the daily five years ago. Written by HIV-positive Lucky Mazibuko, the column provides readers with a personal look into the physical and emotional life of a person living with Aids.

Calling for South African Aids journalism to “continue with the basics”, Schoofs placed equal emphasis on the investigative tradition (revealing “misdeeds by the powerful”), another aspect raised by the Cato Manor respondents. “[M]illions and millions of dollars has been given to South Africa for the fight against Aids,” Jooste recorded one resident saying. “People with Aids have the right to know what happened to that money, and journalists should find out for them.”

Two areas for future journalistic focus, according to Schoofs, are medical science (traditional medicines and anti-retroviral roll-out) and HIV prevention (what works, what doesn’t, and why).

It appears, then, that the answers to the Aids coverage dilemma are out there. Whether the media can overcome its commercial imperatives and follow through is another issue. As e.tv head of news Joe Thlohoe said in his own address: “Those of you who are editors know deep down in your hearts that your circulation today is going to drop because you were carrying Aids stories.”

Rhodes University journalism head Guy Berger, commenting on “Aids fatigue” and the impending headline slump, wrote recently that “the politics of the story just got a whole lot softer”. It is certain that every activist and Aids journalist in South Africa concurs with Berger that the victory is “something to celebrate”, but, if last week’s seminar is any indication, it is equally certain they share his concerns over what happens next.

Kevin Bloom is editor of The Media magazine

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