Fact and friction: Getting facts right is essential

  • Kim Johnson - 16 November 2012

A desperate lack of basic HIV knowledge is still an issue, even among journalists reporting on HIV-related news stories.

Slips ups in the use of HIV terminology in this Thursday’s Sowetan illustrate that basic but vital facts about HIV, like the difference between HIV and AIDS, are still not common knowledge.

In continuing coverage of the trial of a father and son allegedly involved in multiple cases of rape, Sowetan reported on allegations that one of the accused infected a woman with HIV.

Factually incorrect phrases like “spread Aids to victim” and “infected one of his alleged victims with Aids” are used in the report. Other terms like “infected her with HIV-Aids” hit closer to the mark but are still off target.  

There are fundamental biological differences between HIV (a virus) and AIDS (a syndrome caused by HIV). As a syndrome AIDS cannot be spread. HIV, which is a virus, is what is “spread” or transmitted from person to person.

Failure to use the correct terminology when it comes to HIV and AIDS is more than a factual issue. It also does not reflect the changing nature of the epidemic, which has shifted from acute to chronic.

Merely a decade ago, before free and effective HIV treatment, HIV and AIDS were inextricably linked to death. Now HIV can be managed and people living with the virus can prevent it developing into AIDS, living full, healthy lives on antiretroviral treatment (ART).

In the Sowetan’s case and in many others, AIDS is a loaded term that is being used incorrectly.

Using the wrong terminology could communicate to readers that HIV is still a death sentence.

Whilst journalists’ tight schedules and limited resources mean they are not always fully versed in the technicalities of HIV, reporters do have a responsibility to ensure that the public’s perception of this widespread condition keeps with the times. This is particularly the case in a country where HIV is a pervasive issue.

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“reporters do have a responsibility to ensure that the public’s perception of this widespread condition keeps with the times”