Crisis or chronic: Misrepresenting the HIV epidemic

  • Kim Johnson - 7 December 2012

World AIDS Day coverage suggests subeditors might be out of touch when it comes to HIV’s status as a chronic but manageable condition.

Two articles in The Star and The Citizen this week feature headlines, captions and pictures that seem to indicate some editors are still stuck in a time when HIV and death were inextricably linked.

While the journalism in the articles was HIV savvy, drawing distinctions between HIV and AIDS and maintaining that people living with HIV can live life to the full, the elements that subeditors are generally responsible for (headlines and photographs) did not reflect what living with HIV is like today.

The headlines of both articles used the term AIDS incorrectly, ignoring the fact that HIV and AIDS are essentially two different things.

The Citizen also used the outmoded and disempowering term “Aids sufferers” in its headline, a turn of phrase that invokes images of wasted and weak bodies on the brink of death.

The photograph that accompanied the article (a woman sitting in a remembrance garden) inadvertently harked back to a time when AIDS-related deaths were tragically inevitable.

The Star’s article had a more up-beat drift, showcasing HIV-positive athletes as examples of how people living with HIV can do the same things that HIV-negative people can.

But, ironically, the headline (‘People with Aids test their endurance in unusual ways’) undermined this message by suggesting that running marathons is something remarkable and unusual for people living with HIV.

The reality of today’s HIV epidemic is a much brighter one than the photo and headlines would have us believe.

Hard-won free HIV treatment has made AIDS a rare condition, enabling HIV-positive people to supress the virus in their bodies, making HIV a chronic but treatable condition.

Recent coverage of the closure of Cotlands’ hospice facility is firm proof of the HIV epidemic’s shift from crisis to chronic.

According to the organisation not one child in their care has died from an AIDS-related illness in the last three years, making the hospice unit redundant.

HIV is a technical and socially complex issue that remains important in the South African context, this means that subeditors should at least have a working knowledge of HIV in order to ensure that stories are framed and presented correctly.

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“the closure of Cotlands’ hospice facility is firm proof of the HIV epidemic’s shift from crisis to chronic”