AIDS at 21: Media Coverage of the HIV Epidemic

For Immediate Release:
Monday, March 1, 2004

For further information contact:
Chris Peacock or Rob Graham, (650) 854-9400


People Most Affected by HIV/AIDS Are Rarely the Focus of Media Coverage

Menlo Park, CA – Are the media experiencing “AIDS fatigue?” A new Kaiser Family Foundation study examining 22 years of news coverage finds that overall media coverage is decreasing, while the amount of coverage of the global epidemic is increasing.

AIDS at 21: Media Coverage of the HIV Epidemic 1981-2002 also finds that specific populations disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS in the U.S., such as gay men, teenagers and young adults, minorities, and women, were the focus of only a small amount of the news coverage.

“In the United States, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has moved from being an absolute death sentence to more of a chronic disease and one with an increasing presence in minority communities,” said Mollyann Brodie, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Public Opinion and Media Research at the Foundation. “The challenge for reporters interested in writing about HIV is to explore new news angles and for those fighting the epidemic, the challenge is to find new ways to tell the story.”

Key findings of the study include:

Decline in Total Coverage. Total media coverage of HIV/AIDS increased during the early 1980’s, peaked in 1987, and declined steadily through 2001. While this decline in coverage seems to mirror a decline in new AIDS cases in the U.S., it began about six years before the decline in cases, and continued even as the cumulative number of AIDS cases in the U.S. rose above 500,000. Minor peaks in coverage after 1987 coincided with major developments in the epidemic, occurring in 1991 (Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive), 1996 (the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy), and 2001 (increased attention to the global epidemic).

Shift Away from U.S. Focus. Coverage was mainly U.S.-focused throughout the time period, but this has shifted recently, as the proportion of stories with at least some global focus increased dramatically, starting in 2000, accompanied by a decline in attention to the domestic story.

Changes in Portrayal of Affected Population. Over time, there was a decrease in media coverage focused on the U.S. population and an increase in attention to the world and non-U.S. populations generally and African and Asian nations’ populations in particular. This shift largely tracks with the shift in story focus to the global epidemic over time. Perhaps surprisingly, HIV/AIDS never became a story only about gay men, who were the focus of only 4% of stories overall. Other subgroups, such as minorities and women, disproportionately affected by the epidemic also received relatively little attention.

Similarly, images used in broadcast stories only rarely reflected specific populations affected by HIV/AIDS. In an analysis of the “face of AIDS” as visually depicted in broadcast news, the most frequently portrayed population was health care professionals (20% of broadcast stories), while gay men were the on-camera focus of 3% of stories, teenagers and young adults (3%), minorities (1%) and women (1%).

Changes in Story Topics. Over time, stories about HIV transmission and social issues such as discrimination and housing declined, as stories focusing on government funding/financing for HIV/AIDS and philanthropic fundraising efforts increased.

Timeline Events. Coverage generally reflected key events that have occurred throughout the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including the initial CDC reports about AIDS, the closing of San Francisco bathhouses, Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive, the introduction of protease inhibitors/highly active antiretroviral therapy, and HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Consumer Education. The study also finds a decreasing number of stories with a consumer education component. Previous national surveys of the public have found a lack of knowledge about HIV transmission among a significant minority of the U.S. population. This raises the ever-present question of the appropriate role of journalists, especially in the context of a public health epidemic: to what extent do the media have a responsibility to educate the public, as opposed to focusing only on reporting the news?

“The lack of focus on those most affected by HIV/AIDS occurs at the same time as we see in other surveys that personal concern about the epidemic among African-Americans and Latinos is down,” said Jennifer Kates, M.A., M.P.A., Director of HIV Policy at the Foundation.


The Kaiser Family Foundation in conjunction with Princeton Survey Research Associates International, conducted a comprehensive examination of media coverage of HIV/AIDS over the time period from the first news reports in 1981 through December 2002. The analysis presented here is based on a sample of more than 9,000 total news stories from major U.S. print and broadcast sources, including four major national newspapers (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today), three major regional papers in areas particularly hard-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic (the San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times), and three major network news programs (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News). Stories were also coded from The London Times for comparison to U.S. print media.

The report is included as a supplement to the March/April 2004 issue of Columbia Journalism Review and is available online at

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private operating foundation dedicated to providing information and analysis on health care issues to policymakers, the media, the health care community, and the general public. The Foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.

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The independent source for health policy research, polling, and news, KFF is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California.