Hollywood actor 'with HIV': How the media should be responsibly reporting

Following The Sun's front page story on an apparent "HIV panic", sexual health experts speak about how to effectively report without stigmatising the condition

Chris Mandle@chris_mandle
Thursday 12 November 2015 12:50
The Sun's front page, 11 November 2015 The Sun
The Sun's front page, 11 November 2015 The Sun

Campaigners have criticised “scare-mongering” reports about an unidentified “womanising actor” living with HIV sending Hollywood into a panic.

The biggest concerns surrounding these reports are how they could negatively influence the public’s perception of HIV and stigmatise those living with the infection.

Radar Online first reported on a Hollywood actor’s ‘desperate battle with AIDS’, adding that the actor in question is terrified his “shocking secret” will make fans hate him.

The Sun was condemned for their front-page story, in which they claimed Hollywood was “gripped with fear” and that the actor in question “has [a] string of ex-lovers”, causing “HIV panic”.

As the sexual health charity National Aids Trust (NAT) points out, there is a worrying lack of understanding about HIV, leaving the media with an important role to play in encouraging awareness without sensationalising it.

“Understanding the advances in knowledge and treatment around HIV is vital to reporting accurately,” NAT said in a statement. “Accurate reporting benefits public health, dispels myths, undermines prejudice and increases understanding.”

This is how HIV should be accurately reported:

Use accurate terminology (and avoid outdated wording)

HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It damages the body’s immune system so that it can no longer effectively fight off infections.

HIV the virus may result in AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) - but having HIV and having AIDS are not the same and are not interchangeable.

NAT say that due to breakthroughs in effective sexual health treatment, “AIDS is no longer an inevitable later stage of HIV infection in the many countries where treatment is accessible”.

They say calling either condition “a deadly virus” is no longer accurate.

Respecting people’s privacy

Naturally it is very hard to verify whether someone actually has HIV or not.

Writing for The Independent, Tom Hayes, the editor of Beyond Positive, notes that the reports would have to be based on medical records, and that “it seems highly likely that someone’s privacy has been invaded”.

NAT state that “privacy and consent are very important” when it comes to detailing someone’s medical status and individuals should have full cooperation in deciding to come forward to talk about HIV.

Misconceptions about HIV - how it can and cannot be transmitted

Fear around HIV isn’t helped by malicious headlines about “womanising” actors and characterising it as a contagious disease will only cause needless panic.

In order for HIV to be passed (transmitted) from one person to another, there needs to be a certain amount of the virus present.

This means that while it can be found in saliva or sweat, the concentration is nowhere near high enough for contact with either to lead to infection.

HIV can be passed on from one person to another during a single sexual act or by sharing needles. But being exposed does not automatically lead to being infected, and any suggestions of this can lead to people with HIV being further stigmatised.

Reducing stigma and avoiding sensationalism

Guidelines state the importance of avoiding sensationalism in the media. This can include sensationalist language (“horrifying”, “deadly”, “public health hazard”, “debauchery”) and imagery.

A number of media outlets have been criticised for using stock images of the virus itself, which do nothing to educate the public and only seek to “cause unnecessary anxiety” and widespread fear.

It is also inaccurate and incredibly damaging to report on life expectancy of people living with HIV.

Radar’s claim that without treatment: “average survival time is estimated to be nine to 11 years” was condemned given the actor in question is reportedly receiving successful, effective treatment.

“Outing” HIV-positive people

Deborah Gold, Chief Executive at NAT, told The Independent that the scare-mongering around people living with HIV is reminiscent of the way celebrities and politicians were outed by tabloids in the past.

“It will be a mark of how much we have come on in terms of HIV stigma when stories like this no longer make the national news. The panic mongering, sensationalising and moral pearl-clutching the [reports] embody are reminiscent of tabloid headlines of the past.

“Being gay isn’t anything to be ashamed of, just like having HIV isn’t anything to be ashamed of,” she said.

For more information on HIV and Aids, visit the NHS website here or contact charity the Terrence Higgins Trust here.

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