Last week, I was contacted by a journalist at the Sun newspaper. She had read my blog and was requesting an interview about my current experiences of online HIV harassment and HIV hate crime. Apparently, issues around HIV stigma and discrimination are topical due to the storyline on Emmerdale. I do not watch soaps and had only learned about the introduction of HIV into the storyline via news reports and my contacts in the field of HIV.
The Sun newspaper wished to run a story specifically about HIV stigma and harassment, to coincide with the storyline in the ITV soap. I was told that I would be paid generously in return for being named and photographed.
Whilst I am happy for journalists to contact me, I reserve the right to decline interviews. If I had been approached by a newspaper with a history of responsible journalism around HIV, I would have given considerable thought to the proposition in order to raise awareness about the medical condition and also to challenge social stigma and discrimination. On this occasion, however, the long history of the Sun newspaper irresponsibly running stories about the medical condition with extremely offensive and tasteless headlines and inaccurate medical facts, made me walk away from the proposition.
In many ways, this is unfortunate. Why should someone living with HIV have to be wary of the way a newspaper decides to report facts about their medical condition or worry about the language that may be used? Well, in an ideal world there would be no necessity in the first place to write or to report about HIV discrimination, stigma or hate crime, for these social occurrences and crimes would not exist. But in the here and now, it is much easier for journalists and editors to believe in outdated facts about this virus and propagate old, yet newsworthy, stereotypes of a person living with the condition, rather than report the truth.
I personally believe that it is incredibly newsworthy to crush stigmatizing stereotypes with the written word by printing scientifically accurate grabbing headlines and to also set an example of responsible journalism for other publications to follow.
Journalists and editors, like the rest of us, should pride themselves on career development and remaining top of their game. In the case of HIV reportage, this means staying in touch with the amazing developments in treatment, learning the meaning of bio-medical prevention of onward transmission, getting to grips with the significance of undetectable viral load, trying to understand why stigma and criminalization stop people from taking HIV tests, celebrating the fact that more than 99% of babies born to mothers living with HIV in the UK are born free of the virus…I could go on.
The take away point is simply this. Journalists and editors are imbued with an important role in society. They are the pulse of conveying current affairs, of politics and law, of developments in health and medicine, of sharing life real stories, and as such they can significantly influence the way their readership interpret and digest facts about HIV.