Three Reasons Why Language is Important in Media Coverage of HIV

by Guest Contributors

Latin American Media has room to improve its use of correct and destigmatizing language when talking about people living with HIV.

Post submitted by Diego Mora Bello, HRC Global Fellow

HIV in the Media” is part of a project Diego Mora Bello is working on as an HRC Global Fellow and a Next Generation Leader with The McCain Institute. HRC’s Global Fellows program seeks to identify outstanding established and emerging LGBTQ leaders from around the world and bring them to Washington, D.C. to work alongside HRC staff.

Stigma and discrimination continue to be common barriers for people living with HIV. Fortunately, the media can play an important role in helping to remove these and other barriers. In my own survey of Latin American news articles mentioning HIV and AIDS, and in meeting with media professionals and advocates, I found that Latin American Media has room to improve its use of correct and destigmatizing language when talking about people living with HIV. Covering HIV both correctly and responsibly is important, because doing so is an essential part of raising awareness, debunking common myths, and giving voice to an already marginalized group of people.

The importance of using correct and responsible language in journalistic coverage of HIV inspired me to research this topic and share my findings. The ultimate goal of HIV in the Media is to report on this subject in a scientifically accurate and responsible way that inspires others to follow suit.

Based on my research, here are the top three reasons why language is important when covering HIV and AIDS in the media.

1. Incorrect medical language can be misleading.

Latin American media continues to refer to HIV as a disease, when it should be described as an infection. Media in the region also erroneously use the terms “HIV” and “AIDS” interchangeably even though the two are not one and the same. Consider, for example, that all people who’ve been diagnosed with AIDS are necessarily living with HIV, but that not all people living with HIV have been diagnosed with AIDS.

"The incorrect treatment of the issue distances people from health services, in particular the diagnosis of HIV, and it can affect their social relationships and quality of life," said Miguel Angel Barriga, director of the Corporación Red Somos of Colombia.

2. Inaccurate reporting can perpetuate stigma and foster discrimination.

Latin American media falsely characterize people living with HIV as “infecting others” when a more neutral, far less  stigmatizing term would be to say one “transmits HIV”. When reporters and bloggers use words such as “sick,” “contagious” or “carrier,” which are not appropriate by many standards, they legitimate the use of such words in everyday life. In so doing, reporters help create and maintain the status quo, where in many people avoid getting tested or treated for HIV out of fear of violence, mistreatment, or harassment.

"In the case of HIV, the inappropriate use of language conspires against the goal to eliminate stigma and discrimination," said Leandro Cahn, director of communication and institutional development at the Fundación Huésped in Argentina.

3. Celebrity coverage can overshadow stories about people living with HIV.

Latin American media tends to focus its reporting on stories of celebrities who support, donate to or participate in HIV-related events or on celebrities who talk openly and honestly about their HIV status. These stories, while important, do not encapsulate the full range of topics that need to be discussed. The media would do well to include a diversity of stories about the current realities of HIV since the media represents one of the few places where everyday people in Latin America may hear about HIV. Other story ideas include HIV criminalization, the advent of treatment as prevention and PrEP.

"Talking about prevention and treatment can raise awareness among the population", said Alonso Castilla, a Telemundo Washington journalist.

Read more about this study here. For more about HRC’s work to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic, click here.