Reporting HIV still challenging for journalists

GETTING so-called experts to be accurate and correct is, from 20 years’ experience, probably the most difficult single aspect of reporting HIV.

Many physicians, even the most-qualified and highly-experienced, often think they can communicate; they can’t, so this skill should never be assumed.

Even those with media training and experience may be so focused on their personal scientific or research disciplines that they don’t – or can’t – see the wider picture.

Consequently, journalists who are expecting – if not relying – on that wisdom are let down; and ‘the media’ is blamed, yet again, for ‘getting it wrong’.

In a training programme written for journalists in the early 1990s, a press release issued by a senior doctor in England, specialising in public health, was used as a ‘how not to do it’ example. Why? Because there was a factual error in every paragraph.

Medics aren’t the only culprits. Charities – many of which are themselves big businesses, relying on significant government contracts for most of their income and turnover, paying competitive salaries – can’t be relied on for 100 per cent accuracy, either.

Such organisations may not pay dividends to shareholders, and they may use volunteer
labour, but some highly-paid staff may not appreciate the intricacies of what they are saying.

In recent weeks, a specialist HIV physician, working in England, called for routine HIV testing in hospital accident and emergency units.

A woman from a well-known HIV/Aids charity appeared on BBC News 24 saying that this was unnecessary, as gay men still represented the UK’s ‘highest risk’ group for HIV.

While there may be a very large proportion of those identifying themselves as gay who have HIV – in other words, there is a ‘high prevalence’ of HIV in this specific population group – ‘risk’ is an entirely different concept.

Yes, one gay man having sex with another stands a high chance of encountering someone else with HIV. The risk of HIV being passed – transmitted – from one of them to the other depends entirely on what they do. Being careful – using ‘proper condoms properly’ if desires so demand – can reduce transmission risks to almost nothing, but including all this in a 25-second TV or radio report or a 100-word news piece is rarely easy.

The prevalence of HIV may be comparatively low amongst people being taken to hospital casualty departments, but if infections are identified – diagnosed – then individuals can be offered treatment.

Some people decided years ago that their sex would be safer sex. Others, unaware that their partners may have HIV or other sexual infections, may not be so conscientious. An HIV diagnosis may be the incentive that someone needs to be more careful. Care not only protects individuals, it can stop the onwards spread of the virus to others, several sexual encounters further on.

Public relations officers (PROs) from HIV/Aids charities have increasingly important obligations, as cost-cutting measures over recent years have greatly altered the media ‘food chain’.

More and more stories originate with PROs. Those working for academic, scientific or medical, peer-reviewed journals (each with sophisticated publicity machines), for universities and for organisations funding research (usually – in the case of HIV – the drug companies and ‘big pharma’), may also release news about the same study.

Journalists are then faced with fighting through the spin to find if there actually is a real story there, or whether someone is extrapolating findings from 40 people in a study to millions across a continent.

Cuts in court reporting have meant that increasing numbers of law enforcement agencies in the UK – from the police to the environment protection authorities – now issue press releases about legal proceedings, because reporters can no longer earn livings from covering courts. Unless those writing and issuing such handouts appreciate the nuances of both court coverage and HIV, errors can – and have – occurred.

Increased dependency on wire services means that differences in HIV terminology between the USA and the UK are not always picked up. A press agency here in the UK may top-and-tail stories from AP and Reuters, without realising that the story has been changed.

Alternatively, many working around HIV expect journalists to be unquestioning propagandists – because of the devastation that the virus can cause: for individual lives, to entire populations and nations.

For journalists to work most effectively, those wanting collaboration should not demand it. Such co-operation has to be earned, because medics and HIV organisations must win respect for their expertise, authority and credibility, for what they have to say and the way that they say it.

Journalism should start out by being critical of those organisations and their work.

If reporters do have obligations, they are to those who should be protected from unnecessary risks or from care and treatment that are not as good as they could, or should, be.

Covering HIV stories, either as a reporter or a sub or copy editor, frequently raises more issues, both technical and ethical, than are immediately apparent. Those who have high expectations of ‘the media’ have not recognised today’s huge working constraints and pressures that face every journalist.

HIV stories may not appear on wires as often as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, but when they do break, appreciating the subtleties -not least because everyone’s knowledge of this virus and its effects has increased – is important. It may be a topic that isn’t high on news agendas or training needs analyses, but it should not be ignored.

Adam Christie is a former independent, HIV management consultant and author of ‘Aids: A Guide for Businesses and Business People’, a World Health Organisation programme
to train journalists in reporting HIV stories. He is also a key author of ‘Reporting HIV’ guidelines, recently published by the National Union of Journalists and the National Aids Trust.