When Linda Villarosa pitched an article about the prevalence of HIV among black gay and bisexual men to The New York Times Magazine, her editor was surprised that the story was a positive one about the work of an HIV prevention volunteer, rather than another grim, harrowing account of people’s experiences with the disease.
Villarosa had been covering AIDS since the 1980s, but had “given up” for a while, she told a panel at the NLGJA National Convention in Philadelphia in a Friday morning session titled “New Ways Philadelphia: Reporting HIV/AIDS Today.”
She felt that the topic didn’t require her energy anymore, and she felt “fatigued” — until she came across studies documenting the prevalence of HIV among black men in the South. Determined to find out why, she reached out to contacts, attended local awareness events, and eventually met Cedric Sturdevant from the Black AIDS Institute, who became the main character of her New York Times Magazine cover story published in June.
“I pitched my story to the Times in a very positive way,” Villarosa said. “It was all about the good work Cedric was doing. And then I met the editor, Jessica Lustig, and I told her I wanted to pitch it. And she said, ‘This is really interesting, but it’s really positive.’”
Although a story about a disease with a positive spin might come as a surprise to some editors, the panelists said writing uplifting stories about people affected by HIV and AIDS is necessary. Doing so helps the public understand what HIV and AIDS look like in the 21st century, and that it is still a relevant, timely issue.
“For many of us that work in HIV, this kind of thinking – about finding those stories that go untold – that defaults to us talking about HIV and AIDS as the hidden epidemic, but I want to turn that over a little bit,” said Kwame Chery of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “As we go forward, I want us to find the stories of love and success and family that exist among those who are living with HIV and AIDS.”
Coverage of HIV and AIDS has been on the decline for the past two decades, said panel moderator Cherri Gregg, community affairs reporter for KYW News Radio.
“The peak of coverage was in 1987 when the epidemic was at its height, and by the early 2000s – if you exclude spikes in coverage from celebrity cases – the media experienced what we call ‘AIDS fatigue,’” Gregg said.
With the development of treatments for HIV, the public began to think that AIDS was no longer a problem, Gregg said. But statistics show that the LGBT community, specifically men and people of color, as well as African American women and youth, are contracting HIV and AIDS at disproportionate rates.
Chip Alfred, the director of development and communications at Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers, agreed with Gregg.
“We’ve been dealing with this epidemic for a long time,” he said. “People don’t die from HIV anymore, and they’re taking medications, and now we’re tired of it. Where do we find new stories?”
Now, Alfred said, the most important tasks for journalists when covering HIV and AIDS are to embrace the voices of those who are most affected, to honor those who have died, and to address long-term issues survivors face.
Villarosa added that the best way to overcome “AIDS fatigue” in journalism is to dig deeper in researching the issue to figure out what the new stories are. She said the best stories on HIV and AIDS work on multiple levels. In her last story, she asked individuals who worked for HIV and AIDS organizations how they would be affected if the Affordable Care Act got repealed. She recalled that someone told her, “It won’t matter to me. Everything is so terrible, we didn’t have Medicaid expansion anyway. So the rest of the country will just look like we look.”
Explaining the process of finding a story that works on multiple levels, she said, “I say to myself, ‘This is a story about AIDS, but it’s also a story about health inequality and disparity in America, and it’s a story of people trying to save each other.’”
Another task for journalists covering HIV is to help challenge the stigma against HIV and AIDS that still exists today, Alfred said.
“People with HIV often blame themselves and feel shameful, but people have sex, and people use needles,” Alfred said. “It doesn’t matter how you contracted it. Do you blame people for having diabetes because they eat too many fats? It’s just a thing that happens – and that’s the problem. We make it sound bad and promiscuous, but we all have sex. What’s bad about that?”
Hilary Beard, author of “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life,” added, “Almost everybody has a family member or friend who has AIDS. So people who have HIV and AIDS are not people we don’t know. It’s a very close issue to us and it’s familiar in some ways, but it’s stigmatized. … We need to challenge the idea that it’s people over there and out there because it’s us.”
Beard, who writes the weekly newsletter of the Black AIDS Institute, said there is an immense personal reward for reporters who dig deeper into HIV and AIDS.
“When I first got involved in reporting on this disease, I thought I was getting involved to help somebody else,” Beard said. “The really wonderful experience I’ve had is that this disease has taught me about humanity and life and blown open my heart. I’ve met the most amazing people in the whole world. The big winner turned out, from reporting and learning and interacting with people, to be me.”
About the Author
Gianluca D’Elia, a senior at Rider University, is studying journalism and political science. Learn more about him here.