AIDS in the Media


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It was only nineteen years ago when the world was first introduced to the AIDS virus, but by 1983 a significant number of people had died from the dreaded disease and media coverage began. AIDS was almost immediately viewed as one of the most stimulating scientific puzzles of the century. On June 5, 1981, the Federal Centers of Disease Control reported five cases of a rare pneumonia among gay men. It is the manner in which this epidemic has been reported that is my main focus. “ In the case of AIDS, the popular media, especially the news media, have played an extremely important role in drawing upon pre-established knowledge and belief systems to create this new disease as a meaningful phenomenon, particularly in regions dominated by the mass media such as westernized countries” (Lupton, 4). It is more than the way this disease has been reported, it is the way in which the news accounts of AIDS have been constructed and have changed over the decade, and specifically the way in which AIDS has been known (Lupton, 4).

“The earliest representations of AIDS as a ‘plague’ or as a ‘gay plague’ suggested that aids was being made to carry a heavy burden of meanings and connotations quite extraneous to the virus itself and more to do with unresolved fears about sexuality and social order” (Eldridge, 213). The first reports of this disease were in medical journals and weren’t seen until 1981, although the symptoms associated with this disease had been noted in gay patients as early as 1979. The mainstream press was very uninterested in getting involved. The first “expert” appeared on Good Morning America for forty-five seconds to respond to an article that was printed in the December 1981 issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In the first six months only five stories about this new epidemic appeared in the national press. In these early times the disease had been named GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency by the Center for Disease Control (Juhasz, 45). It wasn’t until the end of July 1982 that the CDC adopted the name “acquired immune deficiency syndrome- AIDS” as the official name of the new disease (www.library.ucsf.edu/sc/ahp/). Since the average person wasn’t considered to be at risk there was almost no mainstream coverage of the disease.

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It has been noted that until the epidemic began moving beyond just gay men, IV drug users, etc., that it wasn’t a story that interested the average viewer (Elderidge, 214). “The fact that these two groups were already routinely portrayed as ‘deviant’ minorities encouraged in many the impulse to invest AIDS with the supernatural power to ‘seek out’ stigmatized and marginalized groups (Eldridge, 214). “The networks didn’t want to see stories about junkies and homosexuals”. In the very little coverage the disease did get it was depicted as a “mysterious disease” affecting only gay men (Juhasz, 45). “ Implicitly, these characterized gay men- because of their ‘habits’ or their ‘sexual intimacy’ – as responsible for their illness. Because of this bias and extreme misrepresentation the gay media picked up the story and began reporting about AIDS in medical terms. The information that these early articles provided helped to answer questions and fill in gaps that were left by the mainstream media (Juhasz, 45).

“The history of AIDS includes a history of struggle over meanings and representations. AIDS is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing of knowledge about the human body…” (Eldridge, 212).

There have also been divisions over the terminology used to describe people with HIV. On one side, AIDS victims are still seen as ‘doomed’ or ‘human time-bombs’ who are ‘sentenced to death’ or ‘cursed’. Then on the other, they are just seen as ‘people living with AIDS’ or ‘people with the virus’. These issues are a few of the important issues involved in te debate of the role of the media in our understanding of AIDS (Eldridge, 212).

It wasn’t until 1983 that the mainstream press began reporting on this disease. At this time the disease had killed almost fifteen hundred people (based on CDC control statistics for the US) and health officials declared AIDS the United States number one health priority (www.usatoday.com/life/health/1hs650.htm). “The mainstream press coverage increased by six hundred percent, based on the release of a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the virus could be contracted casually, as well as reports that the virus could be contracted through blood transfusions” (Juhaz, 45-46).

In 1986, the Department of Health began an AIDS education campaign that focused on heterosexual or ‘everyone’. The campaign was met with much criticism because it was still the belief of the majority that AIDS was a disease that affected only ‘gays, junkies and foreigners’ (Elderidge, 214). It was said that the campaign was not only focusing on the wrong groups but also being dishonest foe addressing everyone and normal heterosexual sex. In 1989, Lord Kilbracken, a minority voice on the all Parliamentary Group on AIDS claimed that there was only one case of AIDS proven to be caused by heterosexual sex. The newspapers, of course backed up the story and ran articles with headlines like, ‘THE TRUTH ABOUT AIDS’ and ‘STRAIGHT SEX CANNOT GIVE YOU AIDS – OFFICIAL’ (Elderidge, 215).



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