‘Were you aware in 1984 or 1985 that there was a fatal disease out there, called AIDS, and that you could contract it through sexual activity?’(Philadelphia 1993)
In the UK many people were not aware of the disease until the mid-80s as it had received little coverage in the press and what it had received falsely branded it a gay disease (BBC.co.uk ).Media coverage of the disease has evolved as knowledge and understanding have increased to form a more sympathetic coverage today.
This essay will look at three articles covering a particular HIV/AIDS related event. Through analysing the content and linguistics of the articles it will examine the levels of coverage offered by those three articles and whether or not they were representative of the research at that time.
The three articles chosen are from the late 90s and represent a period of time during which public understanding had begun to turn, from considering HIV a death sentence to understanding it as a ‘manageable’ disease which can be treated and prevented although not yet cured.
To examine these articles successfully it is important to first look briefly at the history of HIV/AIDS in the UK, this will give the articles examined context through which readers can evaluate the examples.
Historical context of media coverage
‘I’d heard of something. The gay plague, gay cancer, but… we didn’t know how you could get it, or that it could kill you’ (Philadelphia 1993)
Between the first death from AIDS in the UK in 1981 and the end of 1982 there had been seven reported cases in the UK from what the American Centre for Disease Control had named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).Although intravenous-drug users and homosexuals formed the majority of known cases, the causes of AIDS were not fully defined and in 1983 the Mail on Sunday was censured for writing an ‘alarmist’ story when it informed its readers of the risk of contracting AIDS through blood transfusions, citing two cases of haemophiliacs who were known to have caught it in just that fashion. Over the next few years, despite the evidence to the contrary – including the deaths and diagnoses of haemophiliacs and drug users with AIDS – the papers still branded it as the ‘gay plague’ and, in the Sun’s case, the ‘gay bug’. (avert.org 2009)
Media coverage became more common as the condition became more widespread and more people’s lives were affected by the virus:
‘In the beginning, with a few exceptions, the press slowly reacted to its presence, at first writing it off as an isolated disease of gay men. After 1985, however, coverage quickly expanded and gradually improved.’ (Killenberg 2008: 299-300).
While much of the media continued to perpetuate the myths and panic surrounding the disease, a few papers began to take a more responsible attitude;
‘[There is a] thin line between complacency and hysteria when dealing with AIDS. It is undoubtedly a serious disease which will probably kill 5,000 people by 1991. At present a vaccine looks a fairly far-off prospect… But equally AIDS is not a plague’ – (McKie &Timbs 1985).
‘The time when the average Spectator reader could think of the AIDS epidemic as being someone else’s problem is past. The disease has spread beyond the high risk groups in which it started and is no longer confined to homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes and the victims of contaminated blood transfusions’ – (the Spectator 1986)
February 1986 saw the start of the government’s first AIDS public awareness campaign using full-page newspaper adverts – the same newspapers that were creating many of the public misconceptions. Over the next year television and radio advertising campaigns as well as leaflet drops joined the government’s media campaign to educate the public about AIDS (avert.org2009).
A popular figure, Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen, announced that he had AIDS – then died the next day – appealing to the public and his fans to ‘join me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.’ (The Guardian 1991). The media had widely speculated about his condition prior to his announcement and, it is possible, that the death of the hugely popular singer helped in following years to reduce prejudice in the media against AIDS. His death certainly inspired a tribute concert for AIDS awareness held at Wembley Stadium which raised around £20 million for AIDS charities. It also encouraged more famous UK faces, including British comedian Kenny Everett, to ‘admit’ that they had the virus and seek public understanding and support (fyne.co.uk 2006).
Despite improved understanding and research into the condition, in 1989 The Sun ran a series of articles which flew in the face of the facts which were available; changing, ignoring and abusing the figures which were then available to run headlines including ‘Straight Sex Cannot Give You AIDS – Official’ and ‘AIDS – The Hoax of the Century’ (Randall 1996: 94).
Sensationalist stories about HIV and AIDS may have decreased since the 1990’s began but they are still around – however the tone has primarily changed, with most stories being about miracle cures, treatment breakthroughs and exaggerated progress. On November 13 2005 the Mail on Sunday ran the story ‘Miracle HIV-recovery man may have cure’ (Mail On Sunday 2005). The danger in these articles is in forming false hope for the sufferers and in encouraging them to switch from beneficial medicines to unproven quick-cures.
In addition to stories of ‘cures’ and breakthroughs, exposés of fake cures and con-artistry came into prominence in the mid-90s from vitamin pills being sold as a cure (Laurance 1997) to inherited immunity to ‘the plague’ helping people develop immunity to HIV (Butler 2005).
Press coverage has not all been negative or sensational. The Times and the Sun endorse conservative political views on the economy although they sell to very different readerships; yet there was no common stance on AIDS amongst the Murdoch press, with each taking opposing sides of the argument. Where there is no forced point of view the line the paper takes is decided by editorial viewpoint (Beharrell 1993).
As public understanding of and treatments for the virus improved, this editorial leeway has decreased. It is more difficult now for an editor to claim that non-drug using heterosexuals cannot catch the disease; it is publicly understood that the risk to heterosexuals is real, although there have been less heterosexual cases of the disease than homosexual. An editor may dispute the validity of a medical claim within the paper but easy access to information with the expansion of the internet and 24 hour news networks has limited their capacity to simply deny that claim.
In the following three articles we shall see how –whether through bias, politics or simple opinion – this leeway can affect the way a news piece is portrayed.
‘The HIV virus can only be transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, namely blood and semen.’ (Philadelphia 1993)
Here we look at three randomly chosen articles from August 13th, 1999. It had just been announced that it was to become normal practice for all pregnant woman to be offered HIV tests alongside the (then) standard tests offered. It had been suggested that these tests would become compulsory but at this stage they were voluntary.
The article headlines read
‘All pregnant women to receive HIV tests on NHS’ (Paul Waugh, The Independent 1999)
‘HIV tests plan to save babies; Mums-to-be targeted’(Shaun Connolly, Birmingham Evening Mail 1999)
‘HIV tests urged for mothers-to-be: Government acts to cut numbers of babies born with AIDS’ (Sarah Boseley, The Guardian 1999)
These articles were published when research had reached a stage at which it was understood that it was not an automatic ‘death sentence’ for the baby whose mother was HIV positive. That it was possible to, in many cases, prevent the transmission of HIV from the mother to the baby through treatment during pregnancy; delivery by caesarean; and bottle feeding rather than breast feeding.
All three of these papers covered the subject with more sensitivity than had been seen in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Each paper offered an explanation for the government’s decision to include HIV testing within the panoply of tests already being offered to expectant mothers. Though each article comes out in general support of the plan, and lists the main reasons behind it, those reasons are weighted differently in each article:
Guardian: ‘If women know they are infected then there is a chance they can reduce the risk of transmission from mother to baby by one in six to less than one in 20. It also means the women themselves can benefit from early treatments which are now on offer.’ (Connolly 1999)
Independent: ‘Of the 265 HIV-infected women who give birth every year, up to 50 babies are born with the virus, mainly because their mothers are unaware that they are infected.’ (Waugh 1999)
BEM: ‘Modern interventions can cut the chances of a baby having the virus to less than 5%, but most infected mothers – 70% – do not find out they have HIV until their baby becomes ill and often dies.’ (Boseley 1999).
The articles also make some attempt to address the concerns of those who may find themselves contemplating just such a test; discussing potential increases to life insurance premiums, confidentiality, possible treatments for mother and baby – including preventing the child from contracting the virus – and the support offered to those who find that they are HIV positive.
The Birmingham Evening Mail carries the minimum of facts – sharing the necessary information in a direct and straightforward manner. It lays the essential facts out in as plain and easy to understand fashion using strong language which conveys a sense of immediacy:
‘told to take HIV tests’; ‘would not be forced to give a blood sample but would be strongly advised to do so’; ‘standard medical procedure’; ‘too late to stop their babies being infected’; ‘insist’; ‘265 live births to HIV infected women’ (Connolly, B.E.M 1999)
There is also conflicting information contained within the article; ‘reduce the chances of passing on the virus by up to 20 times’ and ‘reduce the numbers born with virus by two thirds’
The language used could create a very dark picture for those who are pregnant, phrases like ‘live births’ can create the impression of still births being common in women with HIV (not accurate) ‘told to’ seems to remove the choice of the pregnant woman while at the same time insisting the measures are not compulsory.
The Guardian uses more moderate terms than the Birmingham Evening Mail; ‘offered’ and ‘recommend’ replace ‘told’, for example. It uses very emotive language throughout the article; for instance, supposition that the baby will be found HIV positive is inherent in;
‘”What mother does not want to be screened for any condition which her baby could develop which is preventable?” she said. Without the test, “the baby will be delivered and then will not thrive, and then as part of routine investigations will be found to be HIV positive.” ‘ (Boseley, The Guardian 1999)
Guilt is also presupposed in the very emotive quote from a Dr Welch to persuade its readers that the test is essential and should be taken by all pregnant mothers;
‘News that they are HIV positive is hard to come to terms with, “but what is harder is finding out your baby has Aids [sic] at three months,”’ (Boseley, The Guardian 1999)
Suggesting also that this is a far more likely occurrence in British women than in women from other parts or Europe or America, places additional pressure on pregnant women to conform to the new ‘non-compulsory’ tests.
It litters the article with facts and figures; the most worrying one being that in London one in five pregnant women are HIV positive – though reassuring the rest of England that some areas have less than 1 in 5000 pregnant women testing positive.
The Independent article’s opening lines do not follow the same pattern as the other two articles, initially not introducing the fact the tests are to be optional instead presenting the information that ‘all pregnant women in England are to be given an HIV test under a Government scheme to reduce the number of babies born with the virus.’ Instead it is half-way through the article before that information is given.
This article clarifies the ‘live births’ faux pas made in the Birmingham Evening Mail article by offering the information that ‘Of the 265 HIV-infected women who give birth every year, up to 50 babies are born with the virus’. This article is not as figure heavy as that of the Guardian – nor as sparse with information as the Birmingham Evening Mail – but does attempt to illustrate each major point with a supporting statistic or additional piece of information.
Of these three articles the Birmingham Evening Mail is perhaps the easiest to read but carries with it negative images and does not necessarily offer sufficient information when taken in comparison with the levels of information available at the time.
‘Obviously, reporters must get the facts right. It is also vitally important for them to resist that urge – and the efforts of others – to exaggerate the importance of medical developments… reporter must proceed with caution and restraint.’ (Killenberg 2008: 299-300).
History shows us that this is not always the case, but it is important to recognize that the press can only represent the facts as they are understood at the time.
‘It is through the news media that highly specialised knowledge can be made accessible to much wider audiences through the public sphere. However…coverage of health and medical knowledge is frequently incomplete, oversimplified, partial, dependent upon a restricted number of powerful sources, or, in certain circumstances, sensationalised in a way that is associated with “health risk panics”.’ (Manning 2001: 13).
While none of the articles can be said to be to be guilty of sensationalising the subject or inciting a ‘health risk panic’ the statistics contained may have been a cause for concern for some of their readers.
‘Every problem has a solution. Every problem… has… a… solution.’(Philadelphia 1994)
Each of the articles manages to convey a distinct representation of the subject despite using the same base information and source, using various language and content constructions. Potentially demonstrating that particular paper’s stance towards the topic, although this would need to be examined in greater depth than this essay has been able to do.
Unfortunately it is not possible to say for certain that these articles are truly representative of the press coverage and the public understanding of the time as there would need to be a wider examination of the topic, but they could be classed as representative of this particular issue.
Perhaps then, what could be considered is whether or not each of the articles conveys the same basic level of information, the desired impression (i.e. that HIV testing for pregnant women is a good thing for both mother and baby) and whether it is suitable for their ‘standard’ readership.Particularly as it is entirely possible that these and similar articles were the primary means for educating the public about this development. Yet as each of these articles includes and omits information found in the others it is possible to criticise them as being incomplete; each appears to present the information in an impartial fashion but the phrasing discussed above does not wholly support this. Each is dependent upon a particular group of sources, with the same source – Tessa Jowell – being quoted in all three items.
While none of these articles claim to have a cure for AIDS or an answer for the infected mothers they all create an optimistic picture for the unborn babies – contrasted by a very negative image of the future of the babies of non-diagnosed HIV positive mothers. The new risks for babies with a mothers undertaking HIV treatment and following the recommended guidelines is, respectively, 1 in 100, less than 5%, less than 1 in 20. These figures do not match and prompt concern that the articles may be painting an overly rosy picture.
avert.org, (2009) History of HIV and AIDS in the UK 1981-1995. Accessed online 09.05.2009 at http://www.avert.org/uk-AIDS-history.htm
BBC.co.uk, Mystery disease kills homosexuals. Accessed online 09.05.2009 athttp://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/10/newsid_4020000/4020391.stm
Beharrell, P (1993) ‘AIDS and the British Press’, in J. Eldridge (ed.) Getting the Message: News Truth and Power. London Routledge
Boseley, S. (1999) HIV tests urged for mothers-to-be: Government acts to cut numbers of babies born with AIDS. The Guardian, August 13. Accessed online 09.05.2009 athttp://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/1999/aug/13/sarahboseley1
Butler, A (2005) How plague can prevent HIV; Mystery solved in the battle to find a cure for AIDS. Daily Post, March 10
Connolly, S (1999) HIV tests plan to save babies; Mums-to-be targeted. Birmingham Evening Mail, August 13. Accessed online 09.05.2009 athttp://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-60166286.html
Cottle, S (ed) (2003) News, Public Relations and Power. London: Sage. (pg 9)
fyne.co.uk (2006) Kenny Everett. Accessed online 09.05.2009 athttp://www.fyne.co.uk/index.php?item=214
Killenberg, G. M.(2008) Public Affairs Reporting Now: News of, by and for the People. Oxford: Focal Press. (pg 299-300)
Laurance, J (1997) UK vitamin pills sold as AIDS cure in Uganda, The Independent, July 27
Mail on Sunday (2005) First man in world to beat HIV virus November 13
Manning, P. (2001) News and News Sources: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage. (pg 13)
McKie R., Timbs. O. (1985) Anatomy of Panic, Observer, 24th February
Philadelphia (1993) Movie/video release. TriStar Pictures. Written by Ron Nyswaner, directed by Jonathan Demme.
Randall, D. (1996) The Universal Journalist. London: Pluto Press. (pg 94)
The Guardian (1991), Queen Star Dies after AIDS Statement, 25th November. Accessed online 09.05.2009 athttp://century.guardian.co.uk/1990-1999/Story/0,,112639,00.html
The Spectator (1986) How AIDS Threatens All of Us 15th November
Waugh, P (1999) All pregnant women to receive HIV tests on NHS The Independent, August 13. Accessed online 09.05.2009 athttp://www.independent.co.uk/news/all-pregnant-women-to-receive-hiv-tests-on-nhs-1112303.html