By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ
NEWS coverage of AIDS has remained fairly consistent over the past 10 years, although there has been a marked shift toward focusing on celebrities, according to a new report.
Further, media sources remain a major source of information about AIDS for American adults, nearly three quarters of whom believe the media are telling the truth about AIDS.
“In general, results of content analysis are usually critical, but that is certainly not the case here,” commented Andrew Kohut, director of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the analysis sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kohut also is director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in Washington, D.C.
AIDS coverage over the past 10 years, Kohut said, has been broad-based, consistent, emphasized protection and prevention and did not become politicized.
“As a consequence, public awareness and knowledge grew,” he said, during a media briefing in Washington, sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Press Foundation.
The only “relatively small problems” were that the coverage was overwhelmingly domestic ? only 4% was internationally focused ? and became more celebrity oriented over time, Kohut noted.
Further, as AIDS news became more celebrity driven, it moved off the main news pages and into the style and sports sections, making it an issue for more non-science reporters.
Dr. June Osborn, professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the University of Michigan Medical School, who has been active in numerous world and U.S. AIDS commissions, sees a missed opportunity in the move toward celebrity coverage.
“The celebrity facet serves as a convenient way of avoiding the issue that’s involved,” she said.
“I don’t see the story that we’re dealing with something that is huge and is not going away. The celebrity issue allows us to duck that,” Osborn commented.
Dr. Mark Smith, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and a member of the clinical faculty at the University of California at San Francisco, who also currently and formerly served on a number of AIDS committees, noted that coverage of celebrities can increase public awareness.
“The coverage of celebrities has its hazards and its dangers,” Smith noted. “Celebrities, by definition, are not like the rest of us, but people tend to say that it makes them more aware.”
Smith pointed out that there was an increase in 800-number calls and AIDS testing in the weeks and months after the announcement that basketball star Ervin “Magic” Johnson was HIV positive.
“People, by their actions, say something about their recognition of the risk,” he added. The coverage “clearly contributed to Americans’ understanding.”
In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey of adults found that when they see media coverage of celebrities with AIDS, 58% of respondents said it makes them more aware of the threat to themselves, while only 36% said that what happens to celebrities has little to do with people like themselves.
The biggest AIDS story, in sheer volume, was the Johnson announcement.
The report found 259 stories that week focusing on AIDS, more than twice the 98 stories during the week that the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe announced that he had AIDS, the second highest volume of stories reported.
During “major event weeks,” researchers found an average of about 100 stories in the five newspapers and three network news shows studied that focused on HIV/AIDS, compared to about 30 stories during typical news weeks.
Stories during typical news weeks also tended to be shorter than those during major event weeks.
The report also noted that the media’s focus on prevention and treatment did not go unnoticed, leading to a high level of awareness and knowledge by the public.
Among the three national newspapers studied ? the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today ? researchers found that the Times was less likely to focus on celebrities during typical news weeks (11% of stories versus 18% for the Post and 20% for USA Today), and both the Times and Post featured more representatives from the scientific/medical community (17% and 15%, respectively) than did USA Today (9%).
The researchers also looked at two regional newspapers ? the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, representing the “heartland,” and the San Francisco Chronicle, whose readership community has been particularly hard hit by the epidemic.
The Chronicle ran more stories about HIV/AIDS than the Post-Dispatch during the typical news weeks (97 to 67) and more of its nonlocal stories ran on Page One or in the national/international news section (58%, compared to 44% for the Post-Dispatch) than in the style/life section (25% in San Francisco, compared to 34% in St. Louis).