By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
The epidemic swells but reporters complain editors have lost interest
OLD NEWS MAY be no news, but reporters covering AIDS say it’s still news, even if they sometimes have difficulty convincing their editors.
During a panel discussion at the Unity ’94 convention in Atlanta, Jesse Mangaliman, a New York Newsday reporter, said that even more difficult than limited space is keeping the story going.
“AIDS, having been around so long, is a hard sell as a story,” he said. “I think the biggest challenge in selling the story to your editors is constantly and every day reeducating them and making them aware of what the issue is, even if you have to do AIDS 101.
“That’s important, and that’s why you get burned out, because you can’t do that every day,” he commented.
Mangaliman said, “You have to work harder when you’re selling an AIDS story, because it’s been around for so long, editors will tell you that they are tired of hearing it.”
Though AIDS is not a daily, breaking story, he said the challenge is to strike when the timing is right, and that takes work.
He compared the AIDS story to fire stories: Both have been done before, but that doesn’t mean you stop doing them.
Panel moderator Cesar Chavez, promotions producer for WGN-TV in Chicago, said, “As people of color, we know what it’s like to be marginalized. We’ve all faced some kind of discrimination, and I think that people with AIDS face that kind of discrimination every day.
“The lucky thing,” Chavez added, “is that we’re journalists and we have the opportunity to educate the public about this issue and other issues. But it sometimes bothers me when I go into a newsroom or hear from journalists and friends who say that their news managers just don’t care about HIV, because it doesn’t affect my viewers or my readers,” he said.
AIDS does affect people, he said, pointing to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1 million U.S. residents are infected, not counting people who have never been tested and nondocumented immigrants.
Dallas Morning News reporter Frank Trejo is often frustrated by the fact that because he writes about gay and lesbian issues, “it has almost automatically been assumed that I also cover AIDS.”
Although he does not cover all AIDS stories, Trejo said, “whenever a press release comes across, or whenever something’s going on in the community, almost always, instinctively, the editors turn to me.
“In fact, when I agreed to do the gay and lesbian issues beat, I specifically said I really do not want this to turn into an AIDS beat, because I believe AIDS should be covered totally different, because it affects not just gays and lesbians, it affects a whole range of people,” he said.
For example, not long ago a “very intelligent” assistant city editor assigned Trejo a story about a group that was forming to assist people with AIDS. The group, however, was trying to decide on a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users.
“So I had to kind of sit down with him and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is about IV drug users and trying to exchange needles. It’s not about gays and lesbians.’
“That’s the kind of thing we have to face every day, just from people who ought to know better,” he said.
From 1986 until about three years ago, Trejo said, the Morning News had a reporter assigned to AIDS. Now the issue is relegated to the medical reporter, the social services reporter and to him ? “whoever happens to get a story that’s kind of on their beat.”
Because of that, a lot of stories fall through the cracks, he said. “We’re not bombarding people the way we should be.”
National Public Radio reporter Brenda Wilson said she was not sure AIDS should be its own beat.
“I do think that at this stage of the epidemic people are regrouping and rethinking, reassessing, and I think that’s going to require good reporting,” she said.
“I think for a long time there was a lot of good reporting, and a lot of reporters coasted on the reporting that had been done by other people to a certain extent. You could do nice feature stories if it was based on somebody else’s digging.
“I think in order to get a story to the front page, you’re going to have to do a lot of digging,” Wilson said. “There are going to have to be some developments which are really significant, you’re going to have to put them into some sort of context where they make sense, and you’re going to have to make a case.”
Sexuality has been missing from much AIDS coverage, Wilson commented.
“In spite of the fact that this epidemic has been with us for more than a decade, the one thing that I feel that is often missing in the coverage is a frank and open discussion of sexuality, and it’s a fight that we still have to have with our editors,” she said.
Commenting that African-American men with AIDS have been undercovered, Wilson said, “At this point, having looked at a lot of different communities in addition to the gay community, I think it may be time to kind of honestly ask ourselves, as much as we want society to believe that everyone is represented equally in this epidemic, it isn’t.”
Journalists, she said, need “to be honest and maybe straightforward and frank about that and examine what the real dimensions of the epidemic are again, to make sure that we get it right. We may have two agendas here, which is to get people to pay attention in a responsible way, but we should make sure that we state the case correctly.”
Trejo added, “One of the things I was looking at in my community is the fact that AIDS is very, very definitely still a white, gay man’s disease. I’ve looked at the rate of infection in AIDS cases for Hispanics and African-Americans. It’s still very low in our community.”
He said, “In trying to do stories about African Americans and Hispanics, particularly Hispanics, I’ve found that it’s very difficult to find these people who are willing to come out and talk to you.
“You can go into any AIDS organization, any gay AIDS organization, and they can find people for you right away ? well, not right away, often right away ? and a lot of people who are very articulate and very knowledgeable,” Trejo said. “Finding those people in the minority communities is a lot harder, and it takes a lot more work and it takes a lot more sensitivity, too. You have to know what questions to ask and how to ask them.”
Stressing the importance of telling people’s stories, Trejo suggested going beyond organizations, to friends and people they know.
Karyn Greer of WGNX-TV, Atlanta, said a problem for television is, “We need to see the faces and we need to put pictures there for people to identify with.” Greer said she is lucky her station has allowed her the time for stories such as the one she showed at Unity about the final days of a young man with AIDS.