Why So Little AIDs Coverage?

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By: Allan Richards

In 1996, I wrote a two-part documentary on HIV/AIDS in conjunction with Dr. Paul Volderbing, one of the leading authorities on the disease. There was an excitement in the air at the time as protease inhibitors, the second class of antiretrovirals, appeared to manage the disease, if not cure it. While many infected individuals have survived thanks to antiretrovirals, the HIV/AIDS story has faded from the headlines and public awareness, leading to an alarming increase in HIV in young people today.

As a journalism educator, a large part of my job is to help prepare students to investigate, write and adapt to the rapidly changing media. I teach the multimedia journalism class at Florida International University?s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) in North Miami, and each semester I charge the students with developing a Web site and individual blogs based around a theme, such as weather and natural disasters.

This semester we have been reporting on HIV/AIDS.

When I announced the topic to my students on the first day of class back in January, one young woman asked me why I chose that subject. She, and her 17 classmates, answered the question several days later when their research revealed that South Florida?s three main cities?Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach–have among the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the United States, and some zip codes in Miami-Dade have escalated to the very top of the chart. They were stunned.

?How come we don?t read about this?? they asked. ?We thought AIDS was under control.?

When I announced that the SJMC would be running a writing competition on HIV/AIDS, and that I would take the two winners to South Africa to report on the impact of the disease there, nobody asked ?How come?? They knew that South Africa has the highest rate of HIV-positive infections in the world.

Why is this so? Local media?print and broadcast?have both reduced health reporting considerably. When I commented about this at the SJMC?s media advisory board meeting in February?the board is composed of the editors of the major newspapers on the east and west coasts of southern Florida, heads of several network stations and a handful of public relations and advertising executives–several nodded their heads in agreement. Downsizing in the media has left its mark.

I conceived the HIV/AIDS project as a way of supplementing health reporting in our area, making available fresh?free?reporting and resource pages to help inform the public. My class approached the theme in that spirit and has produced a Web site that does just that.

You can check it out at www.fiuaids.blogspot.com.

We will be adding a global component to the Web site in two weeks. I will be taking the two winners of our writing competition to Cape Town and Johannesburg. We will be visiting an HIV adolescent center in Soweto, traveling to a rural area to visit and document how the pandemic is affecting villagers, interviewing officials from USAID, the Johns Hopkins Center for HIV/AIDS Campaign and the Treatment Action Campaign?the most influential HIV/AIDS advocacy group in South Africa. We will report firsthand on the impact of the disease, revealing, no doubt, that human suffering and human shame is probably the same regardless of geography or culture.

Jillian Simms and Tiffany Anne Parkes are the two students selected by an esteemed panel of journalists–Antonio Mora, WFOR (CBS) anchor; Rafael Olmeda, metro editor for the Sun-Sentinel; Cindy McCurry-Ross, managing editor of the Ft. Myers News-Press.

Jillian and Tiffany will write about ?A Tale of Two Worlds?South Florida and South Africa??and it will have a double sense of discovery for them. They will confront the realities of a scourge and the way it continues to devastate lives both here and afar regardless of race and ethnicity. They will face the grim remnants and reminders of apartheid, something that I found tremendously disturbing on my first trip to South Africa over 10 years ago.

Unintended, incidental, they will also find a little more of themselves and their African-American heritage.

You?ll be able to follow the two young journalists? journey on my class?s Web site. I suspect that these talented young women will further reveal why we went to South Africa?and why the media must renew coverage of this disease, whether in the rural villages of Africa or American cities. Day after day, whether through carelessness or lack of awareness, people are still awakening to the very nasty surprise that they have contracted HIV.

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