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BALI, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - The scant presence of mainstream media organisations at the 9th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) was a sad reflection of how the press was overlooking the big story on HIV/AIDS, say some journalists and development analysts at Asia’s largest meeting on the pandemic.
If journalists are attending ICAAP this week, they are here not so much to contribute to discussions around media’s awareness of the pandemic and their role in reporting on its sensitively and in a knowledgeable manner, but as mere reporters, these observers add.
The poor presence of mainstream media is a sign that the Fourth Estate is failing miserably in its role as a good source of information, says Trevor Cullen, head of journalism at Australia’s Edith Cowan University.
“The problem is that very few mainstream journalists are here at the conference. Up to 80 percent of people don’t get their news from international journals or research reports; they get it from the media,” Cowan said at a session on how the media are talking about HIV and AIDS.
The entire ICAAP, which has more than 100 sessions from Aug. 9-13, only has one session on the media – and just an oral abstract one at that. This “is really not good enough,” he rued.
“It is unfortunate that we got a very small abstract session at this international conference of more than 3,000 people, because I see the need for the role of the media to be discussed more openly and debated upon,” Cullen told the less than 30 listeners in the room, a number that dwindled to less than 20 much later.
Cullen, who has been involved in research on HIV/AIDS reporting for the last 12 years, criticised the “lack of imagination, initiative and linkage” of the mainstream media that is “in the business of finding new angles”.
“We’re very blinkered. We’ve ‘narrowcast’ instead of broadcast these issues. In Australia, for instance, you won’t have any story on HIV/AIDS unless it’s absolutely sensational,” he added.
By the mid-1990s, or more than a decade after the earliest HIV cases were reported, HIV/AIDS had become “just another health story”, he pointed out.
Others had similar views about what the lack of interest in following HIV and AIDS closely either at the ICAAP or in general.
But Michael Tan, who is a columnist in the English-language daily ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’ apart from being chair of the University of the Philippines’ anthropology department, also looked into the lens that media often wear when they report on the pandemic these days.
It used to be that the media training sessions needed to be heavily focused on the use of sensitive language on HIV and AIDS. But media’s challenge now is look deeper into the social and other aspects related to the pandemic, as the disease also evolves.
“We’ve moved from the use of sensitive language. The journalists know how to be politically correct (these days), but the problem is they’re still using the same old moralistic brains,” he said, specifically referring to case of the Philippines.
“It will take more then language to reframe their mindsets on gender and sexuality,” Tan said at a press conference Tuesday.
Rosalia Sciortino, associate professor at Thailand’s Mahidol University, lamented the small number of journalists at the Tuesday press conference after a plenary session around the social inequities that help fuel the spread of HIV.
ICAAP organisers had designed more discussions around themes outside the biomedical aspects in order to have more public awareness of the social contexts that deprive some of the most vulnerable groups of the help they need.
“We wanted to focus on the power dynamics as well,” Sciortino said. Already, she explained, media too often report on HIV as a health issue and put such articles only on the health page, when it is much more than a medical, scientific or health issue.
But going back to the basic journalism rule of putting the ‘5Ws and H’ in stories, Cullen added that media have “omitted the why and the how” when reporting on HIV and AIDS.
Unless the media are engaged in a meaningful way, then the same pattern will keep happening, said Imelda Salajan, media and public awareness consultant of the Jakarta-based advocacy group On Track Media.
“Consistency in promoting the issue should be on top of the agenda. But as it is, communications is always given a very small place in the budgetary plan by donors. It can’t be a one-time programme. The media should think of a long-term strategy and there are creative ways of doing it,” she said.
Syed Qamar Abbas, deputy manager of the AIDS control programme of Pakistan’s Sindh province, suggests the use of creative tools to reach public audiences. “Innovative methods, such as tele-films, are effective in changing attitudes and lifestyles. In our research, we found out that programmes such as films made for television have 30 percent more impact than the traditional ways of presenting news or issues,” he said.
For their part, proponents of community and cable radio report positive results in efforts at the grassroots level to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Nalamdana (‘Are you well?’ in Tamil), is a non-government organisation that runs a popular cable radio programme at a government hospital in the southern Indian state. The show aims to raise awareness about and decrease the stigma of women undergoing anti-retroviral treatment (ART) in the hospital.
“We have noted the positive response of women undergoing ART in a government hospital in Tamil Nadu,” said Nalamdana project director R Jeevanandham.
“We use cable radio to address depression among women and enable them to access special counselling. We also send messages via popular songs and dramas tackling key issues on HIV/AIDS,” he pointed out, adding that counsellors are on hand to discuss the disease on-air.
But tackling HIV and AIDS even in alternative media spaces such as community radio is not always smooth sailing, due to the same cultural and religious factors that constrain public discussion and openness about the pandemic.
“There are still many people especially in rural areas that have little or no knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Community members are still trapped in terms of morality and religion.
Thus, discussion about the issue doesn’t really take off. And then, there are still doubts and fears of breaking cultural traditions and discussing taboo topics,” said Dina Listiorini of the Atma Jaya University of Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
For a long time, the mass media have stuck to portraying HIV and AIDS as the ‘3H’ — Haiti, homosexuals, and heroin junkies, she said, citing previous studies.
But “we have to use all different media to get the message across,” said Cullen. “Use all media, but try to go for quality. For this, you need to train people. We’re just reporting the tip of the iceberg, only 20 percent of the story. We need to realise that HIV/AIDS is a massive story that affects all aspects of our lives.”
*TerraViva at ICAAP 09 (http://www.ipsterraviva.asia)
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