HIV/AIDS: Silent Victims or Silenced Victims: The Media Constructs the Message | The Socjournal

This student essay was submitted for Sociology 435 (The Sociology of Social Change) at Athabasca University. It is a critical examination of  the “heinous” way the media treated the aids epidemic, and their absolute disregard for social responsibility or the deleterious impact media messages were having on the public’s understanding of the disease.  The media generated homophobic, racist, and stereotyped understanding of the AIDS virus that caused additional pain, suffering, and death. Ironically, these understandings persist even decades later. There is a lot going on in this paper but one message is clear, you can’t trust the media to give you the truth of things. They are subject to bias and misinformation, they lack social responsibility, and they even succumb to simple lack of awareness. We do ourselves a disservice, and jeopardize our families and children, when we assume that what we see on television, in the newspaper, or on our favorite news style websites, are accurate reflections of the realities outside our home.


Fight Aids T-Shirt

Fight Aids Tshirt

In 1976, twenty nine white middle aged and elderly men were struck with Legionnaires disease, an incident that received front page, top of the news coverage across North America. However, AIDS would take six years and twelve thousand deaths before most mainstream media aggressively started covering the epidemic (Kinsella 1989:2). This essay will conceptualize how media messages about HIV/AIDS have controlled and constructed social understandings in relation to the epidemic; as well, these declarations of knowledge will be evaluated relative to the media’s significant influence on societal education. Social change, including large-scale transformations, is the achievement of human actors, the result of their actions (Sztompka 1993:259). There is nothing in the social world that is not an effect, intended or unintended, of human efforts and the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a devastating illustration of deceit.

Originally, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were deemed to solely affect social outcasts, gays and junkies, two groups of social undesirables not of interest by family audiences. This was largely due to a lack of expertise, which lead to haphazard treatment of outbreaks by the media and in turn the public suffered. The coverage of HIV/AIDS in the news creates a relationship of the public’s perception of the urgency of the problem. Ultimately, coverage about the virus by mainstream media serves as one important gauge of how prominent the issue is and how overall attention to the epidemic has progressed over time both in terms of content and quality. Official confusion undermined efforts to deal with the epidemic since the first day of the crisis and this requires a critical rethinking of culture; of language and representation, of science and medicine, of health and illness, of sex and death and of the public and private realms because AIDS is a central issue which could affect anyone.

In many cases, the news media have served as a primary educational vehicle for the public regarding information about HIV/AIDS, but what happens when this information is incorrect or biased (Brodie, Hamel, Bray, Kates and Altman 2004:1)? How can society be properly protected or at least construct a proper understanding of danger when being disgracefully mislead? In a survey conducted in October 2003 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 72% of the U.S. public said that the majority of information they receive about HIV/AIDS comes from media outlets such as television, newspapers and radio (ibid). Suffice to say, Western society was doomed from the beginning with regards to the epidemic because the content and quality of coverage was heinous. The production, content and reception of media messages pertaining to HIV/AIDS are studied to recognize more precise ways in which images of understanding are sustained or subverted. In addition, these studies expose the limits of imposed journalism with general editorial concerns, information marketing and assumptions about the reception of the typical audience (Eldridge 1993:6).

[ad#article]This HIV/AIDS epidemic came to realization in North America in the 1980’s and the essential feature of the virus during this period was silence, from medical organizations and media outlets alike. The silence about the epidemic was dominant and constructed whispers around the disease. In cities such as, Los Angeles and New York, marginalization of groups such as the gay community and intravenous drug users became apparent in relation to the epidemic (Kinsella 1989:4). There were few guidelines to indicate what deserved to be covered and for this reason society still felt safe because the messages being received ensured that only gays or drug users could contract HIV or AIDS. How voices are heard can be as important as how many are heard, sequentially images, conceptual structures and audience understandings are reproductions of information provided by media outlets, regardless of inaccuracies (Eldridge 1993:41).

Novel coverage of the epidemic seemed only to be by individuals touched by the HIV/AIDS in a personal way (Kinsella 1989:4). However, in 1981 almost no one at major media outlets was admitting to a personal connection to a disease affecting gay men or drug users (ibid:15). In addition, a lack of government support and failure to take the epidemic seriously, the disease became kind of a curio. The epidemic and the groups at risk were inevitably ostracized and the entire demonstration surrounding HIV/AIDS became simply an illustration of power. Those who have power, such as the media, determine what social conceptions are seen as acceptable. Power relations within groups of society, among groups and between groups, including dominant institutions all repeated errors in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

General surveys suggest that the same problematic ways of understanding HIV/AIDS are reflected in the knowledge and attitudes of many people and vital health educational messages are often not understood (Kitzinger 1990:2). Both how the media structure thinking on part of a particular issue and how the process of audience understanding forms part of the meaning, in turn constructs a social understanding.  Perhaps the lack of concern about the virus then may be a case of monkey see monkey do; because seven years into the epidemic the American government had still not decided what its role should be namely because the “general population” had yet to be effected (Kinsella 1989:8). It was not until 1987 that President Regan even made his first statement concerning the epidemic simply requiring Health and Human Services to determine the extent to which AIDS had penetrated society (Crimp 1988:24).

The content of media messages created a particular crisis surrounding the AIDS epidemic and the lack of response by organizations, such as the Center of Disease Control (CDC), regarding these media misrepresentations furthered falsities. A resistance from health educators and a lack of inclusion was apparent due to their low degree of perceived authority and status, in spite of particular problems the media faced in sorting out uncertainties (Eldridge 1993:131). For instance, in 1983 Cosmopolitan magazine ran an article stating “there is almost no danger of contracting AIDS through ordinary sexual intercourse,” (Kinsella 1989:7). Additionally a Miami television station ran an outrageous series claiming AIDS might simply be syphilis erroneously diagnosed (ibid). This creation of dangerous ideologies in relation to the disease was steering people wrong; however the media defended themselves by declaring they were simply reporting what they were told (Eldridge 1993:130). There was complete disregard for the social responsibility in which the media should have upheld all because of the dominant influence the media has on the formation of knowledge.

During the years of 1981-82, papers like the New York Times reported a mysterious new illness that was considered a “gay man’s cancer,” and was readily compared with contemporaneous, sensational mainstream media reports on homosexual sadomasochism (Silversides 203:15). Regardless of the newspapers pioneering articles on the epidemic, most information was studded with errors of omission and wrongheaded emphasis (Kinsella 1989:3). More interestingly, while reporting incoherent nonsense pertaining to the epidemic, the New York Times chose to ignore stories of significance. Such as, a story involving a 20 month old boy born to healthy parents, who was discovered to have AIDS. One parent received a blood transfusion over a year prior, the donor who at the time had no symptoms of the disease (ibid:19). Even with AIDS being a much bigger story it was not considered front page news and the New York Times ignored the transfusion story altogether (Kinsella 1989:19).

Another publication, The Body Politic, attempted to reconfigure some of these misleading notions by responding to anything that smacked of homophobia (Kinsella 1989:19). But regardless of attempts to demonstrate that, media outlets throughout North America had a persistent capacity for major distortions in their coverage of gay-related issues; a gay specific virus made it even easier to discriminate and spread panic among gay men (Silversides 2003:15). This stigmatized stereotype of one dominantly infected group fed the minds of society because the media controlled mis-representation. The social production of meaning was namely created by the media and had significant bearing on the organization of society (O’Brien and Szeman 2010:366). Earlier information about the epidemic lost sight of rational fears surrounding the disease and focused on irrational fears of sexuality and otherness.

In 1988, Newsweek ran an article which stated the infection was spreading to the “broader population,” but the virus did not require sexual contact or sharing intravenous needles. It could and would however be transmitted through person-to-person contact in which blood or other bodily fluids from a person who is harboring the virus are splashed onto or rubbed against someone else (Kinsella 1989:7). This would mean that AIDS could be spread by something as innocent as a kiss, or simply a toilet seat (ibid). In addition, health organizations such as the CDC held no press conferences to either put out information nor to attract attention to incorrect information pertaining to the crisis. It took no coordinated approach to educate individuals about the epidemic or ways to avoid infection (ibid:14). There was always a source encouraging the notion that HIV/AIDS were a threat to everyone, including white heterosexual middle class couples, though they remained the lowest infected (ibid:4), but unfortunately this idea was neglected. As saddening as original stupidity was surrounding the disease, it did bring scientists one step closer to discovering how the disease was transmitted, believing it may be caused by an infectious agent transmitted sexually or through exposure to blood or blood products (ibid:6).

Rightfully, media messages about HIV/AIDS have been criticized for the lack of clarity, using language that is confusing or even undermining educational efforts. The contradictory ways society struggles to achieve and understand HIV/AIDS is a reality that is frightening, publicized and neither directly or fully knowable. HIV/AIDS is no different in this respect than other linguistic constructions, which in the common sense view of language are thought to transmit pre-existing ideas and represent real world entities and yet in fact do neither. As well, embodying prejudiced attitudes, perpetuating misconceptions about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and failing to take into account the reality of people’s lives and their power to protect themselves and others. The result is that 24,000 Canadians were infected with a debilitating disease that they could have been protected from easily and relatively cheaply (Picard 1995:234).

This poor reflection pertaining to the awareness about unprotected sex and the risk of contracting this fatal illness was enabled by organizations which failed to proactively implement social change (Stoller 1998:3). Absent was individual’s human rights to complete and accurate information because news is not a reflection of the world ‘out there’ but is a product of the ‘practices of those who have the power to determine the experience of others,’ (Eldridge 1993:127) and these social interactions mediated incorrect understandings. Media messages were not only creating irrational fears about sexuality and otherness but the emphasis was more on homosexuals than HIV/AIDS; however the quality of these messages transitioned and the virus became more than just synonymous with homosexuals and deviant lifestyles.

The connection of HIV/AIDS and homosexuality is what delayed and problematized virtually every aspect of North America’s response to the crisis. Even though there were new emerging messages relevant to HIV/AIDS, there were also still errors made in accordance with heterosexual cases and distinguishing between the syndrome AIDS and the virus HIV. Figures showed only one case of AIDS attributable to heterosexual transmission during the late 1980’s, which displayed ignorance regarding HIV/AIDS infection and transmission. This prompted media outlets to suggest this claim was prominent and deserved coverage with headlines that read, “The Truth About AIDS” (Daily Mail, November 17/89) and “Straight Sex Cannot Give You AIDS – Official” (The Sun, November 17/89) (Eldridge 1993:215). The latter article which read,

AIDS – THE FACTS NOT THE FICTION. At last the truth can be told. The killer disease AIDS can only be caught by homosexuals, bisexuals, junkies or anyone that has received a blood transfusion. FORGET the television adverts, FORGET the poster campaigns, FORGET the end-less boring TV documentaries and FORGET the idea that ordinary heterosexual people can contract AIDS. They can’t…the risk of catching AIDS if you are a heterosexual is ‘statistically invisible’. In other words impossible. So now we know – anything else is just homosexual propaganda. And should be treated accordingly. (The Sun, 17 November 1989)

If this information were in fact truthful then why was it that during 1983 female partners of heterosexual males were showing up among figures? This was the constructed uncertainty around whether solely men could transmit the disease and in turn lead to a disregarded ideology of how society should protect themselves against this fatal epidemic (Altman 1986:37). HIV/AIDS, recognized or not, was also affecting ‘innocent victims’ and not just the “guilty victims” or social undesirables. However, the “guilty” are not just responsible for their own predicament, they are to blame for the deaths of others. The innocent victim category became synonymous with the general population, however tragedy and misfortune were more connected to deception by another and this is how innocence was emphasized. Mass media sensitized the public to the apparent threat and values were threatened by the breaking of normal heterosexual relations.

HIV/AIDS was largely discovered among groups such as hemophiliacs, pertinent to the Red Cross and the ‘tainted-blood-scandal’ North America faced throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Seemingly, this created a in shift medical understanding and sequentially a shift in the quality of media messages delivered to the receptive public. Due to a heavy reliance on blood and lack of knowledge about the epidemic hundreds of hemophiliacs died from AIDS related deaths that could have been avoided had the media and public health officials demonstrated a little foresight and leadership (Picard 1995:233). The question of most importance in relation to the tainted-blood scandal is whether the decision of public health officials not to tell hemophiliacs and transfusion recipients of the risks they faced, and their failure to implement preventative measures constitute similar violations of the ‘duty of care” (ibid:251). It seems unconscionable that there could have been hundreds of people who had been infected with HIV/AIDS during blood transfusions who were unaware that they had ever been at risk.

This illustrated a crucial point about practices and situations that facilitated the transmission of AIDS, in contrast to prior stigmatization stress placed on particular groups and identities. In Canada it was not until 1990 that the Red Cross and health authorities introduced testing upon blood donors, because the decade prior to that more than three million Canadians who received blood transfusions were unwitting participants in the lottery of death (Picard 1995:234). Despite the enormity of the HIV/AIDS tragedy, tainted blood did not become front page news in Canada until late 1992 (ibid). This combination of stigmatization and ignorance lead to countless people losing their lives based on knowledge of facts and theories propounded through the media.

Between 1987 and 1990 there was not a single major story about the epidemic that dominated media coverage (Brodie 2004:2). The audacity of media outlets to publically sensitize individuals of apparent threats about this deadly virus and then withdrawal from providing any form of information did but one thing, served as a gauge to how urgent the problem was or was not. The media’s significant bearing on the organization of society is a representation of the social production of meaning, which is not inherent but created through culture, politics and history (O’Brien Though seemingly abstract the structural definition of culture as embedded symbolic forms, circulate in institutionalized channels of transmission and diffusion. These channels are increasingly those of institutionalized networks of communication in which the experience of individuals is increasingly mediated by technical systems of symbolic production and transmission (Eldridge 1993:44). In turn, the quality of media messages regarding the epidemic also transitioned to reflect the coverage of key news-generating events, however this type of media coverage did not appear till the 1990’s (Brodie 2004:2).

Throughout 1991-1995 the biggest HIV/AIDS story was Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive. This enabled a connection that was previously unrecognized; a lack of personal impact involving the epidemic was substituted by a connection being made to an all American individual. Additionally, in 1996 media coverage began to focus on the introduction of treatment for individuals with HIV and during 2000-2002 the focus transitioned to emerging stories of HIV/AIDS in Africa, drug prices and the Global fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Brodie 2004:4). The most interesting thing to note about all of the stories pertaining to the epidemic is that they did not account for more than one to two percent of overall coverage during a twenty two year time period. The most of which was focused on Magic Johnson and accounted for three percent of coverage at that time (ibid).

This intentional shift by the mass media still presented vague concepts in message production to correctly illustrate social and institutional conditions pertinent to HIV/AIDS. The interpretation of ideology should involve claims and counter claims and media messages regarding HIV/AIDS should be produced critically. For instance, the lack of recognition of women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS exists on an institutional level, by preventing educators from speaking about significant facts (Silversides 1998:100). Additionally, the original stigma behind HIV/AIDS to undesirable groups has made it even more difficult for ‘others’ to reveal and except they have AIDS (ibid). Revisited here is the notion of audience understanding and how members of the societal audience interpret the HIV/AIDS coverage or the lack thereof. The new direction of HIV/AIDS messages as an international epidemic created more complex discourses and familiar to the past the focus was shifted again to ‘others’ or to those with whom most North-Americans cannot relate.

The ability of the media to create panic, virtually throughout the world, with regards to HIV/AIDS co-existed with considerable ignorance of its real impact (Altman 1986:56). With HIV/AIDS now dominantly being spoken of as a global epidemic, specifics of the virus shifted more from risk groups and infection to prevention; which accounted for thirteen percent of AIDS stories overall (Brodie Namely, stories were about education and awareness efforts but also included were stories about research, drugs treatments and vaccines. Moreover, only one of ten stories was regarding transmission, exactly the same number specifying in social issues (ibid). Progress in the understanding of the epidemic was slowly and continually advancing the cultural ignorance and insecurity that had been originally constructed (Sztompka 1993:27)

Although throughout this period the quality of health education messages shifted and became predicated on a number of basic facts; first HIV weakened the immune system and allowed many different infections to condition AIDS. Second, the impairment of the immune system may take a number of years to become apparent; finally, the presence of HIV is not present in a test, only the presence of antibodies which may have developed in response to the virus (Eldridge 1993:213). Sequentially, some clarity encompassed what was considered to be at “risk groups,” isolated individuals with identifiable characteristics that are predictive of the disease; as well as, criticizing it as misguided information (Crimp 1988:38). What is known about the virus suggests there are more “risky” practices for anyone, not just certain groups of people who might then be excluded from the rest of society either metaphorically or physically (ibid).

The deliveries of broadcast versus print messages need to be distinguished for the purposes of content and quality. Broadcast messages regarding HIV/AIDS were more heavily weighted on research, whereas print messages focused on funding efforts behind the epidemic. Sequentially, the tone of broadcast messages were more dramatic and pessimistic then print messages because broadcast messages were more volatile and time-dependent than print (Brodie Media messaging over time resulted in fewer stories with information related to consumer education. Early in the epidemic little was known about transmission, prevention and progress to HIV/AIDS but as recently as 2000 surveys found that four in ten North-Americans thought the virus could be transmitted through kissing, one in five thought it could be transmitted by sharing a drinking glass and one in six thought it was possible to be infected by touching a toilet seat (ibid:7).  Quality of media messages, regarding consumer education of HIV/AIDS, has evidently declined and this decline coincided with a change in the nature of audience understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, from an absolute death sentence of the “guilty” to a chronic disease that even the “innocent” can live with.

“The public wants to see HIV as occurring in certain groups in order to reassure themselves that they aren’t vulnerable. But it isn’t about ‘them,’ it’s about us. And it’s not about groups, it’s about behavior.” Maggie Atkinson (Silversides 1998:98).

From the origination of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in North-America there has been a blatant shift in the content and quality of media messages. Informational messages created a need to formulate media strategies which recognize the variations within and between media and the process by which their representational practices are shaped (Eldridge 1993:139). Misguided messages regarding HIV/AIDS have been framed in terms of individual behavior rather than government policy, passive suffering rather than active resistance, risk groups rather than risk activities and as a minority concern rather than an important social issue (ibid:299). The intentional shift in attention regarding HIV/AIDS messages is now devoted to the epidemic in third world, yet this is more simply a problem about which one hears and this shift only deafens the silence of the dominant media in North America.

However, the progression of messages have attempted to produce some clarity to audiences, from the mere understanding of the epidemic to more prominent details of legality based on conscious neglect when infected. Messages now focus on the criminalization of AIDS based on subjective recklessness, the awareness of being infected and the risk of transmission to an unknowing partner (Policy and Law Review:2005). As well in North America safer tattooing practices have been implemented as have safe injections sites for drug users, which are all encompassed in new media messages pertaining to HIV/AIDS (Policy and Law Review:2007). Although ultimately, these messages ar

Cite This

Brooke Silversides (2010). HIV/AIDS: Silent Victims or Silenced Victims: The Media Constructs the Message. The Socjournal. []