“AIDs to sweep the world” and “Millions at risk” Typical media headlines in the late 1990’s. UNAIDS released estimates in 1997 that, worldwide, 30 million adults and children had HIV with another 16,000 being infected each day and the media coverage reached such a height that it was almost impossible to open a newspaper, switch on a Radio or TV without AIDS/HIV being the story of the day.
However, since a peak at the beginning of the new millennium the number of stories relating to AIDS/HIV has shown a noticeable decline in almost all the developed world, with the exception of North America. The “Global Media Aids Initiative” launched in 2004, by the then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has members in Serbia and the Ukraine but no other European Country appears on their home page. The BBC (and MTV) appear as global members but the BBC references the World Service as opposed to the domestic broadcaster.
The media coverage of AIDS/HIV shows an almost classic product life cycle (see chart below) as described by economists to explain product sales over time.
Media interest started development in the late 1950’s when the first cases were encountered, they were not always recognised as HIV and received little coverage. It was over twenty years before the media reported that Doctors treating gay men in New York and San Francisco were seeing the first properly identified cases of what The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta had started calling “AIDS” – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
The media interest received a huge boost on 2nd October, 1985 when the actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS. In a message of condolence, US President Ronald Reagan used the word “AIDS” in public for the first time, more than four years into the epidemic. The media coverage entered a strong growth phase with “Gay Plague” and similar story lines appearing more and more frequently. Coverage in March 1987 of a speech given by New York gay rights activist Larry Kramer led to the formation of the radical Gay action group ACT-UP.
Over the next ten years the story continued to attract wide ranging media coverage but in most countries the focus moved from the Gay Plague to the risks of infection through heterosexual contact. The peak for media coverage was probably in June 1998 when the 12th World AIDS Conference in Geneva reported the existence of multi-drug resistant strains of HIV.
After this the coverage declined and by 2002 the creation of a global fund to fight AIDS had to be combined with Tuberculosis and Malaria in order to receive endorsement by the leaders of the G8 and African nations. The coverage of HIV/AIDs in the European media has fallen noticeably in the past five years and while stories continue to appear they are much less frequent and have much lower precedent.
The coverage of HIV/AIDs in the media has shown an almost classic product life cycle of slow development, explosion of interest, a steady, high level of reporting and then a decline. The period over which this has occurred did exceed half a century! The extended period shows the importance of the story. HIV/AIDS continues to get extensive media coverage around the world. Compare the 50 year cycle for HIV/AIDS with 50 day or even 50 hour life of many “celebrity” based media stories and it is obvious that HIV/AIDS will continue to be important and continue to receive media coverage for the foreseeable future.