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Study Reveals Racial Bias in HIV-Related Media Coverage

New Study Reveals Racist Bias in Canadian HIV/AIDS Coverage

The media often creates misleading ideas about Black men living with HIV. It's time to change. 

When watching local news stations report on HIV non-disclosure cases, it’s easy for the wider world to create a bias around HIV-positive Black men. Studies have shown reporters often target defendants of color, turning their cases into a melodramatic crime story — despite that most non-disclosure cases involve white men.

A Canadian study called “Callous, Cold and Duplicitous” shows Black immigrant men living with HIV are disproportionately highlighted and summarily demonized in Canadian mainstream newspaper coverage about HIV non-disclosure criminal cases. And even though Black men account for 15 percent of defendants, researchers found them to be 61 percent of newspaper coverage.

As a result, racial stereotyping and xenophobia is fueled and recycled within all media outlets, creating a dangerous cycle of false information. Even more surprising is that Canadian reporters often use the same four cases when contextualizing breaking news about HIV non-disclosure.

“Close to half of all articles in our sample focus on four cases involving different individuals,” lead researcher Eric Mykhalovskiy says to Plus, “each of whom is a black immigrant male. That is what is most outstanding or memorable about reading this, the pattern, the same story being told over and over again in one form or another.”

According to the report, 68 percent of the newspaper articles analyzed focused on racialized defendants. Immigrant and refugees received high amounts of coverage, even though they account for 18 percent of all HIV non-disclosure cases.

In total, there were 1,049 articles featuring Black defendants, compared to 412 white defendants — that’s over 2.5 times as much.

“There is a seriously prejudicial coverage of cases in Black men that create a kind of a popular racial profiling of HIV non-disclosure as a crime of black immigrant men,” Mykhalovskiy says. “You’d have no sense that most people with HIV take great care of their partners from transmission. You’d have no sense that HIV is extremely difficult to transmit, according to the current research. You’d have no sense that 40% of the conviction cases involved no evidence of transmission. You’d have no sense that it is anything other than a crime.”

Here in America, a number of states implemented HIV-specific criminal exposure laws during the early years of the HIV epidemic — the same laws Hillary Clinton promised to reform, as Plus reported.

Plus also reported on the HIV is Not a Crime II National Training Academy, co-organized by SERO Project and Positive Women’s Network-USA, showing it is legal to turn a charge from a misdemeanor to a felony, simply because you are HIV-positive. In fact, convictions are almost guaranteed. Of the 390 HIV criminalization incidences brought to trial in California, 389 resulted in convictions.

Cases like Michael Johnson and Nushawn Williams are examples of how the media creates a monstrous image of Black HIV-positive men, “luring young white [people] to have sex,” as Mykhalovskiy describes.

The court system failed Johnson, the college wrestler sentenced to 30 years for allegedly transmitting HIV to a sexual partner. As Plus reported, Michael Johnson’s lawyer’s opening words to the jury were apparently, “You have to consider my client guilty until proven otherwise.” Afterwards, the judge corrected them: “I believe you meant to say ‘innocent.’”

As far as Williams, he remains locked up under a New York civil-confinement law, which allows prosecutors to extend sentences. He was sentenced to 12 years for allegedly transmitting HIV to multiple women 18 years ago, even though there are still questions about whether or not he’s even HIV-positive.

But the question remains: Why the overwhelming amount of coverage around Black men?

“It’s interesting to try and consider why,” Mykhalovskiy says. “What happens is that these cases provide an opportunity to carry forward a kind of historical cultural fascination and anxiety with Black men and Black men’s sexuality — the whole idea of the ‘Black man’ representing some kind of sexual threat or danger to people.”

It’s time for reporters to move past a misleading framework about HIV non-disclosure. It is the responsibility of journalists to sculpt and base reporting about HIV transmission on current scientific research — not sensationalized headlines.

Mykhalovskiy suggests making sure reporters turn to organizations that care about HIV communities, using a spokesperson to quote for these stories. They need to provide a more positive presence for Black men living with HIV, even though it’s almost impossible to quote a defendant (lawyers rarely want their client to speak).

“We know most people don’t have intimate contact with this issue, so they rely on the media for their understanding,” he explains. “What is concerning is how narrow these stories are in representing [non-disclosure] cases. The men involved are completely silenced, and you have all this coverage about people talking about them in negative ways. They’re objectified and treated as objects. That way of representing things is a classic way of how racism is perpetuated in the media.” 

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