Media images of Aids in South Africa

Why, when the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa is among the worst in the world, does the South African media pay such little attention to it? According to a study by Media Tenor from 2004-2005, the South African media devoted less than one percent of its coverage to the pandemic. In an article published in the latest African Studies Quarterly (available free online), Sean Jacobs and Krista Johnson put it down to a range of reasons relating to the way the South African media is structured political-economically as well as the journalistic conventions and routines it operates within. The result of the confluence of these structural and journalistic factors was a trivialisation of HIV/Aids and a sensational approach to the conflicts between government and social movements.
The media’s poor record in this regard, the authors argue, is part of the democratic deficit in the country. For a media industry that is very vocal about its ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’, their efforts in response to the tragic proportions that HIV/Aids have taken in the country have just not been good enough.


1 Comment

Filed under HIV/Aids, Media Tenor, South African media, TAC

One response to “Media images of Aids in South Africa

  1. TBHanks

    Mmm…several points here that I want to raise but I’ll just focus on a few.

    The article refers to print media but only focuses on newspapers. Obviously, more newspapers than magazines are sold but one can’t simply cut out mass market magazines (Disclaimer: I work for three of the biggest-selling magazine titles in SA). If they did they would have missed out on a mass of Aids-related articles and would not have noticed that one of those titles publishes an Aids watch on its health pages every single week.

    I have written several Aids-related stories and have sat in several editorial meetings where we have discussed writing about it.

    Firstly, there is a misconception that people are tired of reading about Aids. However, there’s a very big difference in just writing about it and writing about it in a way that is relevant to readers.

    I’ve found that readers don’t just want to read the “dry, boring facts” about Aids. They want practical advice on what they must do when they’re living with someone who has the disease – or even if it is themselves.

    People want to know about nutrition, safety, how to boost immunity, how to deal with the emotional effects, how to be caregivers, etc. They don’t just want to read that Aids kills because that is the thing that we refer to as Aids fatigue.

    I also noticed you mention most of the news providers as elite and that they’re the main drivers of the news content that gets filtered down.
    This may have been the case five years ago but the authors can’t ignore the Daily Sun. This is in no way an elite publication.
    It’s got the biggest daily readership in South Africa and can certainly not be placed on the same level as the Sunday Times or even the Sowetan in terms of content.
    Thus I don’t think that argument is strong enough because ignoring the existence of the Daily Sun cuts deeply into the point that all news content is elite.
    And also – the Sunday Times doesn’t report on the issue sporadically. THey’ve launched the Everyone Knows Someone campaign – every week stories around the issue are published.

    The health-e journalists may be complaining that editors are showing a lack of interest in their stories but one can’t take this comment on face value.
    There may be several reasons for their lack of interest. I have read several pieces written by those journalists and they appear to be so similar that there is no point in rehashing. In fact, in some cases stories are sold to various publications with just a few tweaks to it.
    One can certainly not expect that a news editor with a hunger for something fresh would be impressed by this.

    Also, I don’t know if the authors appreciate how difficult it is to write sensitively about HIV/Aids stories.
    Journalists often have to go into homes of dying people and have to convey their stories without being insensitive or patronising.
    It’s also very difficult, as the authors rightly point out, to not portray Aids as a black illness.
    That’s such a complex set of issues it’s almost an entirely separate post.

    Lastly: if the authors argue most of the reporting is about conflict, what do they suggest journalists write about?
    Should we write about how many people are dying? Because that’s not anything new.
    Should we write about what ARVs are? People already know – even kids as they’re being taught that in school.
    Should we write about what is being done in the field of HIV/Aids testing? We do but it’s usually centred in how people are still suffering because people are not getting access to the life-saving drugs.
    Should we ignore the fact that our readers will simply glaze over a story that’s a lump of facts and figures? Knowing that we’ve wasted their time and our space. Instead of writing something that’s relevant to them we’ve just lost them in the first line.
    I don’t really know – perhaps I should’ve read the article more closely – what the authors suggest.
    What would they do?

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