The slogan for this year’s World AIDS Day was “Keep the Promise,” an appeal for accountability by the major players in the effort to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Among the institutions charged with the goal are the media, including newspapers and broadcasters in one of continents hardest hit by the disease – Africa.
Kinglsey Obom-Egbulem is a spokesperson for Journalists Against AIDS in Lagos, Nigeria. (http://www.nigeria-aids.org/ )
He says the Nigerian media have made strides in AIDS coverage. His assessment? “Eighty out of 100. We are coming from a background of ignorance, sensationalism and reporting [that was biased and stigmatizing]. You can see we have improved…. At the moment, Nigerian journalists have moved beyond discussing HIV/AIDS. Most of them are advocates and activists who champion different (AIDS-related) causes,” he says.
Obom-Egbulem says one case highlighting the effectiveness of the media concerns a student who was denied admission to a school of journalism in 2004 because the provost had learned he was HIV-positive. “The guy turned to the media,” Obom-Egbulum says,” and Journalists Against AIDS (JAA) was in the vanguard of seeking redress for him. (Today) he is back in school and graduating in a month.”
Obom-Egbulem’s group, the JAA, attributes its success to a series of regular workshops and monthly roundtables it offers to discuss the illness. The JAA also has a list-serve on the Internet for journalists, and it produces training manuals and other periodicals for reporters and editors.
This month’s roundtable will focus on AIDS and violence against women. Such meetings, he says, serve as way to bring together journalists, activists and researchers – and sometimes, to make news. Over the past five years, the JAA has trained over 500 policy makers and stakeholders interested in the disease, at least 20 percent of whom are journalists.
Some of the workshops this year, says Obom-Egbulem, instructed journalists on how to access the Internet for the latest information on the disease. It also counseled line editors and reporters to minimize writing that sensationalizes the disease or perpetuates a stigma among those infected. For example, he says, journalists are discouraged from using words like AIDS “victims,” “orphans,” and “carriers.”
“AIDS carriers connotes someone who is carrying HIV/AIDS and moving around looking for someone to dump the virus on. We feel that is wrong – people living with HIV are ‘People Living With AIDS’ (PLWAs). Do you call people with malaria, malaria carriers? Also we don’t have malaria ‘victims,’ or typhoid ‘victims,”’so why should we have AIDS ‘victims.’ These words are disempowering, they are stigmatizing, and they discriminate against people with HIV.“
He says among the problems still facing journalists are some media owners who encourage their outlets to carry their own personal views of HIV/AIDS. Another issue, he says, is that after training journalists in HIV/AIDS, some reporters leave for better jobs in public relations, academia, or government.
Obom-Egbulem says journalists can inform, but it’s still up to individuals to change their behavior in ways that could prevent infection or improve the treatment of people already infected. That because the public is exposed to a number of different messages regarding AIDS, including those that come from churches and mosques.
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