Health (academic)

Engaging the reader on matters of HIV In the early 80s a mysterious new virus was detected among a handful of individuals. In 2011, roughly three decades later, the same virus is still a mystery to many. Why? A number of choices and events have contributed to this confusion and ignorance. However, I believe a large portion of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of journalists, or the media in general. The only way to reach people and allow them to understand the intricacies of the HIVirus, is to write stories that are accurate, socially sensitive and, very importantly, compelling. “AIDS is different from other stories” (KFF, 2010: 1) in a number of ways. Most mainstream journalism is rooted in the philosophies of objectivity and balanced reporting: giving two or more contradicting voices prominence. This approach has not been entirely successful when reporting on HIV. For instance, South Africa is “a climate where denial around HIV/AIDS stll prevails in both public and private spheres” (Garson, 2005: 2). It is profoundly damaging to give space to denialists in the interests of representing the ‘other side of the story’. A journalist needs to decide what to include, and what to ignore, so as to protect the public from further confusion. HIV is just as much a social disease as a biological one. This is why the media is so important. HIV is deeply rooted in three intersecting spheres: “Science, Society and People” (KFF, 2010: 3). It is the media’s mandate to demystify the points of intersection. The best way to do this is through the ‘people’ who are most affected by the complications, stigma and fear surrounding the virus. Journalists need to talk to people who confront the virus on a daily basis. Through constructing a narrative of subjective experience, we begin to engage with the issue instead of wading through the broad, abstract and largely political facts of HIV. For example, an article published in the Mail & Guardian by journalist Sharon Hammond, approaches HIV from this personal standpoint. She constructs a man’s narrative, from when he became infected with HIV, to the present day. It culminates with his 23rd year of living with the virus: “I nearly forgot this year until Neil said, ‘Happy anniversary,’ and then I said to the virus, ‘You’re OK, I’m OK, let’s not rock the boat.” (2006) HIV, in some minds, has become a monotonous term in the media: it is sometimes argued “that the subject has been covered too much” (Foreman: 27). However, reporting through an individual’s personal narrative, means that no story will be the same: each life is nuanced in different ways. Also, descriptive language is one of the most powerful ways to ensure that your story is compelling. Let’s consider the opening sentences of a story about prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) written by journalist Darren Taylor: “The echoes of the sheep’s guttural death moans have finally ceased to reverberate among the emerald green, sugarcane-covered bluffs. The only sound now is that of the butcher’s rusted knife, sawing through sinew.” (2010) This evocative writing style encourages an imaginative response in the reader. The vivid imagery attracts attention and creates interest in the story. To introduce more than one sense is one of the first steps to engaging a reader. However, if you want to maintain a reader’s attention you should try working with the idea of suspense. For example, the sentence which follows the initial description in Taylor’s story is: “A feast is being prepared.” The reader may wonder what is happening, creating suspense, until their questions are answered through an explanation. This could be used effectively throughout a story. Another challenge a journalist may face in covering stories of this nature, is how to effectively communicate ‘science’ to an audience. To engage a reader, intertwine the facts and statistics (necessary to ensure credibility) with the chosen descriptive personal narrative. Hammond communicates information about ‘antiretrovirals’ and ‘viral loads’ through an anecdotal description of the subject’s desire to have a child. If you need to include a lot of factual content consider creating a box to accompany your story. You can place many of the more difficult concepts in this box, creating clarity for a reader. It is very important to consider different ways to engage audiences with HIV and AIDS because the media is often a person’s only source of information. Scientists may be able to develop the drugs which fight HIV, but the media bears the responsibility to persuade the public of the drug’s efficacy. Also, the issues of stigma and inequality present themselves as pertinent topics. An added responsibility of the media is to avoid perpetuating discriminatory ideas. Moreover, the media should actively engage the public in these debates so that stigma may lose its hold on the public’s consciousness. It is 2011 and over ten percent of the population is living with HIV ( It is more important than ever to think of creative approaches to journalism to create an informed readership. Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience”. Journalists have a wealth of experiences to uncover in this country. All they need to do is make them public. Bibliography Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from Einstein, A. Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from Foreman, M. “An Ethical Guide to Reporting HIV/AIDS.” Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from Garson, P. 2005. “Men think we bring the disease: Challenges facing HIV-positive mothers in Soweto” in Baby Steps: Reporting on the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV (PMTCT). Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from Hammond, S. 2006. “HIV-positive for 23 years and counting” Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). 2010. HIV/AIDS reporting Manual. Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from Taylor, D. 2010. “The Challenge of Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV in South Africa” Retrieved on 22 August 2011 from

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