What impact does the media have?

The media can have a very influential role in shaping public perceptions of criminal cases relating to HIV transmission or exposure. Balanced, accurate and well-informed media coverage can help to promote information about HIV, local services and empathy for the people living with HIV.

However as a topic that touches on sex and crime, media coverage of criminal cases relating to HIV transmission or exposure can become sensationalized and contain inaccurate, misleading and stigmatizing information. This kind of media coverage undermines national efforts to address HIV by fuelling HIV-related stigma, which can in turn make people less likely to go for HIV testing, seek support and other services, or disclose their HIV status to others.

Providing information

HIV criminalization cases generate far more column inches in the popular media than stories about prevention or access to treatment.  This means that for many people in the general population, the only time they will see HIV mentioned on the front page of a newspaper, will be in relation to a criminalization case.

  • In Nigeria a survey conducted by Journalists Against AIDS learnt that Nigerian health staff reported that they obtain 70% of their knowledge about AIDS from the Nigerian media.

The media has the potential to affect our understanding and knowledge about HIV as well as shaping how we embrace HIV, and the people whose lives it touches, in our societies.

The vast majority of people living with HIV take great care in protecting themselves and their sexual partners. Yet reporting of the threat of ‘deliberate’ infection are prominent in the press triggered sometimes by police investigations or more commonly by criminal prosecutions. Despite the fact that there may not be any evidence of ‘intentional’ or ‘deliberate’ transmission, defendants are frequently portrayed by the media as ‘predatory’ or ‘vengeful’.  Many other myths around HIV have also been perpetuated by irresponsible media coverage, for example, in referring to HIV as a ‘death sentence’ or in claiming that women cannot have children following an HIV diagnosis. 

Sensationalizing the issue

Around the world there have been many examples of dehumanizing media coverage that confuses HIV status with criminality, promotes damaging stereotypes and misinterprets basic HIV facts. For example:

  • Scotland, 2010. A case saw a man plead guilty to having unprotected sex with four women. One woman contracted HIV while the other three did not. Despite expressing deep remorse in court, the man was described as an ‘HIV Monster’ and an ‘Evil Beast’ in the press. He was accused of ‘having absolutely no soul behind his cold eyes’, and an image of a ‘blood dripping ghoul’ was used as an illustration to one story.
  • England, 2011. A man was sentenced to 4 years after he plead guilty to having unprotected sex with one women who contracted HIV. The media coverage in the days following the sentencing referred to the man almost universally as an ‘HIV monster’. The largest selling newspaper in England also focussed heavily on the man’s immigration status and referred to him as a ‘reckless African immigrant’ and ‘callous Zimbabwe-born monster’.
  • Sweden, 2011. A woman in her 30s was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for infecting a man with HIV and could face expulsion from Sweden after the completion of her prison time. One headline read 'Woman sentenced for spreading HIV.' Other media headlines in Sweden on similar cases have read as follows: “The HIV-woman hunted her victims here”, or “New HIV-man discovered”.
  • USA, Florida, 2008. A woman, a mother, was sentenced to two years probation for transmitting HIV to her second child. When she had her first son in 2001, she undertook measures to prevent mother to child transmission. When her second son was born in 2004 she did not want her son's father to know her HIV status, did not undertake measures to prevent transmission to her child, and was accused of not getting the boy proper medical care. She pleaded guilty to felony child neglect and faced up to 15 years in prison. Headlines included 'Officials: woman with HIV didn't seek care for baby' and 'Mother who gave HIV to newborn gets probation'.
  • Zimbabwe, 2008. A 26 year-old woman pleaded guilty to having unprotected sex with her partner in 2007. She was given a five year suspended sentence primarily because her partner did not test HIV-positive. Even though the man wanted to withdraw the charges, saying he had only started the claim because he had been angry, the case proceeded. Media headlines included 'HIV positive woman's case postponed again' and 'Woman spared jail.'

Compromising privacy, justice and safety

In many cases the press will cover a story at the earliest stages of investigation or trial, before anyone has been found guilty of a crime. In some instances the person who is making the complaint will have their anonymity protected (although this is not always guaranteed and can be difficult to ensure). Defendants in these cases are rarely given anonymity and their names, personal details and HIV status are commonly made public.

Biased and sensationalized reporting can mean that people are often portrayed in very negative ways and accused of behaviour of which they have not yet been found guilty. This ‘trial by media’ can compromise people’s access to justice and can threatens people’s safety when the trial is over.

Find out more

Read the National AIDS Trust (NAT), and National Union of Journalist's (UK) Guidelines for Reporting HIV

Read Edwin J Bernard's Global Criminalization Blog

Visit the Real Stories Section to read real accounts of dealing with the media

Visit the Journalist's Against AIDS Nigeria website

Read about the National AIDS Trust (UK) 'Press Gang' initiative

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