The seventeenth international HIV/AIDS conference is set to begin in Mexico City on Sunday (7-4-2008). The gathering will once again focus the globe’s attention on a disease that has so far claimed more than two million lives, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Experts say at least 33 million people are currently living with HIV. In Mexico, journalists will be confronted with the task of covering an event attended by thousands of people, with masses of information disseminated. The media will also have to present new developments in the battle against HIV/AIDS to their audiences, in ways that both entertain and inform. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports.
“The challenges facing the world’s media in Mexico City will be massive, and I’m not trying to be melodramatic,” says Mia Malan, an international media trainer who’s instructed journalists all over the globe, including in Kenya, Nigeria, India and Czech Republic, on reporting on HIV/AIDS.
She says most reporters covering the Mexico conference will have to maintain a “delicate balance” between covering the controversial issues that could arise, and providing their readers, listeners and viewers with “public service information” that could protect them against contracting HIV/AIDS.
“There’ve been several studies that have shown that health correspondents that specialize in HIV reporting do tend to provide more of a public service and become AIDS activists themselves in many ways, and report on HIV in a very different way from general reporters,” Malan tells VOA. She’s also a doctoral student in media studies at the University of Stellenbosch in her home country, South Africa. The focus of her intensive research is the media’s coverage of HIV/AIDS.
At previous international conferences, says Malan, a lot of attention has focused on South Africa, mainly because of President Thabo Mbeki’s controversial opinion that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s contentious belief that certain foods, such as garlic, are better at prolonging HIV-positive peoples lives than antiretroviral drugs.
Malan explains that while both Mbeki’s and Tshabalala-Msimang’s “almost comical” viewpoints provided the world media with “sexy copy,” they also had the “negative effect” of swaying the media’s attention away from more positive developments in the HIV/AIDS sector.
“There were so many studies on microbicides and male circumcision as a preventative measure. And many of those studies were carried out in South Africa, but were not reported on as a result of (the media) focusing on (the South African president and his health minister) who were doing all the wrong things at the conferences.”
Malan continues, “It’s very important for reporters to bear in mind when reporting on a conference of this magnitude to use the opportunity to educate the public about new developments and not to become completely distracted by controversies that may erupt – although these obviously also need to be covered.”
Activists will set Mexico agenda
Thousands of activists will attend the Mexico City event, and Malan expects them to “set the agenda to a large degree regarding what the media does and doesn’t cover.” She says the international HIV/AIDS advocacy movement is “very different” from other “drumbeating” activist organizations in the world.
“We’re talking about sophisticated people here - doctors, lawyers, scientists. Not your usual run-of-the-mill activists. They’re extremely knowledgeable, and very, very influential. Yet, at the same time, they also know how and when to be militant,” she states. “In Mexico City, they will do all they can to focus the media’s attention on issues that are most important to them….”
Malan expects South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, which she describes as the “largest AIDS activist organization in Africa, and one of the largest and most influential in the entire world” to once again be prominent in Mexico, and to therefore feature in many international news reports.
At previous events, she explains, the TAC “actually barged in on many press conferences that they felt didn’t raise the issues that should have been raised, and they would disrupt events that they felt didn’t address the issues. Those sorts of things definitely catch the attention of the media.”
But Malan emphasizes that organizations such as the TAC, aide from focusing attention on HIV/AIDS, provide an invaluable public service.
“When the South African health minister made controversial statements against antiretroviral drugs in Toronto, and the Bangkok conference in 2004, the TAC was extremely fast to react and get journalists together to educate them about why those statements were wrong. As a result, the public eventually received the correct information about the drugs.”
HIV/AIDS now a ‘human rights issue’…. But complex science involved
In Mexico City, Malan will be a member of a United Nations panel on AIDS, culture, human rights and the media. She says that the media has in recent years increasingly portrayed the disease as a human rights issue.
“AIDS is all about human rights. It’s about basic rights, like the right to access to medicine that can make you live longer, the right to access to land in the case of many cultures in Africa of widows that get disinherited when they refuse to be inherited by their brothers-in-law; it’s about the right to dignity and (to) have a life (where) people don’t discriminate against you. And that is important. Those stories need to be told in the media.”
She stresses that the human rights aspect of the pandemic is easier for journalists to reflect when the reporters have access to people who are experiencing certain struggles “first hand.”
“Activist groups and others at the conference, like they’ve done before, will have people there who are HIV-positive, and have direct experience in issues, so that these people can be quoted by media to bring the story alive for the public so that they are better able to relate to it, and be moved to action by it,” says Malan.
She acknowledges that there’s a “lot of science” involved in HIV/AIDS reporting, and that unless journalists have “scientific backgrounds,” there’s always a risk that incorrect information could be passed on to the public.
“AIDS is a complex issue. It’s not an issue that you get to understand everything about just from a conference,” Malan comments. “It’s very important that journalists get educated on (scientific) issues. They must have access to people who can explain this science to them, and then they must be assisted to tell those stories in a simple way that can be absorbed by the public. There’s a great need for more training of the media in this regard, especially in developing regions such as Africa.”
Journalists will have to be creative
Another challenge that reporters in Mexico City will face, says Malan, is that of “HIV/AIDS fatigue” on the part of many international news editors.
“Some people in the media are simply tired of hearing about the disease. More and more of them are not willing to publish or broadcast stories about HIV/AIDS, unless these stories are exceptional,” she maintains. “The challenge for journalists is to present stories in such a way that editors will use them, while still maintaining accuracy.”
Malan says there’ll be an “incredible amount” of competition between the thousands of journalists who’ll be attending what’s billed as the largest conference in the world.
“They will all want to get their stories out first, so the media area will not be a place for the fainthearted,” she smiles knowingly, adding that reporters from developing countries may well be at a disadvantage in this competition.
“Media outlets from countries like the United States often have entire teams of reporters covering this huge event, whereas organizations from places like Africa are extremely fortunate when they have just one journalist present. So it requires from you (as a reporter from a developing land) to have the skill to see the other stories, the other angles, that would make your stories special.”
But, regardless of their backgrounds, all journalists in Mexico City will be confronted with “information overload,” says Malan.
“Reams and reams of press releases will be thrown at them, hundreds of panel discussions, each invitation promising that it’s the best event on earth,” she laughs. “There are so many sessions happening at the same time, and you’re just one person and you can just be at one place at any given time, which means that you will necessarily miss other stories. That can be very nerve-wracking for an inexperienced reporter.”
Nevertheless, as a journalist and a trainer, Malan says she’s looking forward to the Mexico conference as an opportunity for the media to prove that it’s at the forefront of the struggle against the most devastating disease the world has yet witnessed.