Heavy reliance on press releases worrying

  • Melody Hu - 19 March 2013

Media coverage of HIV research findings should avoid the trap of “churnalism” and report responsibly.

A SAPA report on a recent breakthrough in the development of a cure for HIV – namely, the ability of the cancer drug vorinostat to draw out the virus in infected cells  – was picked up by a number of local media outlets last week.

While this news is indeed exciting, the way in which it was reported was not. The heavy reliance on press releases and wire reports rather than independent, thoughtful research is indicative of a troubling trend of lazy reporting and “churnalism" , especially in the field of HIV reporting.  

This recent research does suggest a significant advance in the development of a potential cure for HIV. Existing antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, while effective in suppressing the virus’ activity, cannot completely eliminate HIV from the body as the virus can persist in a latent form in the DNA of infected cells, where it is safe from the effects of antiretroviral treatment (ART).

Vorinostat, which activates DNA and increases gene expression, could theoretically force the previously hidden virus out of dormancy, making easier to treat. Early results from the clinical trial have confirmed this hypothesis.

However, the widespread publication of near-identical reproductions of the original press release represent many missed opportunities to provide a more informative and nuanced view of the story to readers.

Importantly, as is the case with many scientific discoveries, the hope of a cure for HIV does not necessarily translate into the actual development of one.

There are still many important issues that need to be resolved, such as the ethical dilemma of treating patients on ARVs – who are otherwise healthy – with vorinostatin, which has potential side-effects.

In addition, the significance of such research could be made more relevant to South African readers with the inclusion of local context, such as statistics regarding infection rates or the number of people on ART, given the severity of South Africa’s HIV epidemic.

-Melody Hu is an intern at the Anova Health Institute.

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“Heavy reliance on press releases is indicative of a troubling trend of 'churnalism'”