"AIDS strikes HIV victim"
"HIV man jailed for infecting women"
Can you tell which of these headlines is from when HIV/AIDS was first discovered vs. today? HIV/AIDS has been impacting communities since the early 80's, and while it's understandable that there was fear of the unknown causes and risks, I truly believe that the media played a huge role in perpetuating the stigma that we fight today. Yes, they did their collective job of getting people's attention so that they could be aware; however their bold, sensationalized words brought no comfort to the lives and families that were being torn apart by the unknown virus silently killing men and women.
I want to see a world where HIV stigma is gone. Where all health-related stigma is gone. I know that is incredibly idealistic but I can't help but hope it to be possible since it's our fault it exists. We make assumptions, presumptions, judgments and vilify people that are different than us or that we are somehow threatened by.
Special thanks to Vickie Lynn and Valerie Wojciechowicz, and a host of other powerful advocates that worked together and came up with a presentation that involves People-First language in addressing stigma. I believe that is the first step in changing the way media addresses the issues that are involved with HIV/AIDS. We still want them to report on the important changes; however don't group us as one band of horrible "diseased misfits" because of specific isolated events, especially when it involves criminalizing a person because they are living with HIV. There are situations where disclosure of one's status puts someone's life in danger, there has to be consideration taken into that when reporting.
Let's step away from the fear because the original fear was based on the unknown. Today, we know so much about the virus that people can be on treatment to prevent transmitting the virus to their partner and conceive children naturally. We know so much about the virus that there was recently a successful organ transplant involving patients living with HIV.
So, advocates, researchers and community agencies know this...but how much of this do our media correspondents know? The Positive Women's Network (PWN-USA) created a small list of tips for those that work in the media on how to report on HIV. This short list has a more detailed tip sheet and isn't just for media makers. This can be used throughout the community and for people living with HIV. How we identify ourselves is important. Identify with WHO you are, not what you're living with. This amazing resource will detail why phrases like "full blown AIDS","infected", and "mother to child transmission" perpetuate and anchor stigma in our communities that we are trying to educate. We as advocates can do our part, but if the media doesn't reinforce our efforts, it is all for naught.