Author: Lucy Maroncha, July 23 2014 - Activists at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne [Australia] this week have urged journalists to be more creative and to use less stigmatizing words which influence public opinion and attitudes.

Language that stigmatizes against people living with HIV is often reinforced if not originated by the media, yet journalists have the potential to stop stigma by using respectful words while reporting.

Regrettably words such as AIDS-sufferers, victims and AIDS monster are still used in some media houses to show how deadly the illness is. Activists, including people living with HIV, have called for more training for health journalists to improve their reporting. "HIV is a very sensitive topic and journalists need to be well-skilled in order not to be offensive or disrespectful to their interviewees," said Diana Gumbai, a Ghanaian HIV activist.

Grace*, 48, expressed her disappointment that the media had scared her family in the way in which it referred to HIV. "Though I had disclosed my HIV status to my family as wisely as I could, my children were terrified to read in the newspapers that HIV is a slow and painful killer," she said. She added that it took her several days to undo the damage by talking her family through transmission, prevention and treatment all over again. Grace, also an HIV activist, suggested that journalists should counter check the packaging of their HIV stories with HIV experts before submitting to an editor who may be equally uninformed.

Nicholas Feustel, a health and human rights videographer from Georgetown Media in Germany, blamed irresponsible reporting on ignorance. "Some journalists have no clue about what human dignity and rights entail," he said. He advised that any reporter wishing to embark on health reporting should seek relevant training before they start. He added that media policies at a country level should also protect the dignity of their citizens living with HIV.

Nicholas reiterated that all journalists and editors reporting on HIV should know the basics when it comes to health reporting as there may be dire legal consequences in the event of misinformation. "Immature reporting can engage a media firm in prolonged law suits or withdrawal of a licence," he warned.

Some organizations provide training sessions and materials for health reporters to promote accountable health reporting, including the International HIV/AIDS Alliance which earlier this year produced a toolkit for citizen journalists and the Coalition of Media Health Professionals which has produced a guide to reporting on HIV for Kenyan journalists. Other organisations that train media practitioners on health and human rights reporting include the Association of Media Women in Kenya and Internews which both hold regular training sessions on how to carry out interviews with people living with HIV without scaring them off or sounding offensive.

In one recent training session organized by Internews in Kenya, Dolphine Emali, a TV production specialist and training coordinator, warned journalists that the media is respected and authoritative and that anything they write is therefore termed as true and correct. "It's therefore crucial that all journalists confirm that what they have written is not against the human rights code before submitting," she said.

Anamaria Bejar, an associate director with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, commended organisations which train journalists saying that the media needs to understand the diversity of human beings and human rights through extensive training. "This kind of training can also be given by civil society members who are often more informed on human rights than the media," she noted. She went on to say that toolkits and guides produced for journalists serve as very good mentoring for those who are unable to attend training sessions. "Every health reporter should take advantage of such material and ensure that they have at least received basic training on health reporting," she said.

With the right treatment people living with HIV can live long and productive lives - it is no longer a killer disease, however experts warn that stigma is the big issue which so often can prevent people getting the treatment they need. The media has both the responsibility and the privilege to play an important role in eliminating stigma and discrimination, and ultimately in helping save lives.

*Name has been changed

Lucy Maroncha is a member of Key Correspondents, a network of journalists reporting the HIV, health and human rights stories affecting them and their communities.

Image caption: Videographer Nicholas Feustel: Media should not abuse freedom of press.
Image credit: Lucy Maroncha

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