Agents and Structures: Journalists and the Constraints on AIDS Coverage

Emke, Ivan (2000) Agents and Structures: Journalists and the Constraints on AIDS Coverage. Canadian Journal of Communication, 25 (3). pp. 325-345. ISSN 07053657

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On the other hand, a study of American television coverage of AIDS showed that "the typical AIDS story tended less to sensationalize than to reassure, largely because journalists depended upon government officials and high-ranking doctors to present them with evidence of news" (Colby & Cook, 1991, p. 215). And some critics have argued that the media sensationalize certain aspects of AIDS and understate others. For example, in describing the sensationalized press coverage, Watney (1987a) stated: "the entire [AIDS] epidemic has occurred against the lurid background of the most sordid and sickening press campaign in post-war British history" (p. 62). But elsewhere he also criticized the casual and indifferent approach taken by the British media toward the possibility of the deaths of thousands of gay men (Watney, 1987b). Clearly, the position that the media was involved in some grand hyperbolic burlesque to exaggerate the effects of AIDS, while attractive to some, does not account for the variety of coverage which the media produced. Indeed, some stories did capture the obsessions of newsworkers (e.g., the fears over casual transmission, the active stigmatization of gays, the panic over "carriers"). But others, which could have been capable of similar sensationalism, were ignored or treated blandly (e.g., up until the mid-1990s, the confusion over infected blood). The third major section of this paper is devoted to a consideration of the experience of journalists who work on the AIDS beat. The underlying goal of this section is to evaluate whether the constraints mentioned in the theoretical literature can be seen in the experience of working journalists who covered AIDS. While these are the people who are responsible for developing and presenting the coverage of AIDS, their experience is rarely considered in studies of AIDS and the media, except in the more ethnographic studies of newswork. Generally, the journalists who were consulted in this study were working in the print media, in English, and in Central Canada. The sample is small (six journalists), and thus the results are obviously not meant to be generalizable to all media outlets and media workers. However, their accounts provide an application of the above theory, and the dynamics of their daily experience are included here to provide another perspective on how AIDS is constructed and spoken about in the mainstream media.(17) (29) The director of the U.S. national AIDS education program argued that continued media coverage of AIDS was necessary in order to maintain education and research programs. He told a group of journalists: "It's so important that you continue to keep this story [AIDS] in front of people's eyes, because if it disappears from the front pages, from the TV programs, then the concern and care for the [AIDS prevention and research] programs will disappear" (cited in [Sellers, Tom], 1989, p. 16). And the former director of the World Health Organization's Global Programme on AIDS stated: "The media has been essential [in the struggle against AIDS] since the beginning" ([Mann], 1988, p. 4). The impact of media coverage on health policy is also discussed by [Walsh-Childers] (1992) and [Wallack], [Dorfman], Jernigan, & Themba (1993).

4 Citations in Google Scholar
Item Type: Article
Item ID: 77
Keywords: AIDS, media, news
Department(s): Grenfell Campus > School of Arts and Social Science > Sociology
Date: 2000
Date Type: Publication

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