AIDS, conflict and the media in Africa: risks in reporting bad data badly

Lowicki-Zucca, Massimo; Spiegel, Paul; Ciantia, Filippo
January 2005
Emerging Themes in Epidemiology;2005, Vol. 2, p12
Academic Journal
Background: Conflict, poverty and HIV disproportionately affect people in sub-Saharan Africa. The manner in which governments, national and international organisations and the media report on the HIV epidemic in situations of conflict, post-conflict and reconstruction can have unintended and negative consequences for those affected populations. The media in particular has a huge influence on how the world observes and reacts to the HIV epidemic among conflict-affected and displaced populations. Discussion: Three case studies focused on Sudan, Uganda and Guinea describe what the media reported and why the reports were incomplete, misleading or incorrect. The exploration of possible ways to ensure that the media do not unwittingly inflame delicate and complicated situations of HIV among conflict-affected and displaced populations is then undertaken using epidemiological and journalistic principles. The discussion is divided into four sections: 1) Avoid stigmatising statements and ensure a balanced view; 2) Avoid accurate but misleading statements; 3) Avoid inaccurate statements by clearly stating sources and verifying their credibility; and 4) Do not repeat data and conclusions from other news sources without checking their accuracy. The aim of this manuscript is to stimulate awareness and debate among persons and organisations working on HIV/AIDS as well as the media in order to improve dialogue and ultimately to reduce stigma and discrimination amongst an already vulnerable group - conflict-affected and displaced persons. Summary: The media and humanitarian organisations have published misleading and inaccurate HIV data and statements on conflict-affected and displaced populations in Sudan, Uganda and Guinea. Given the unique characteristics of the HIV epidemic and conflict-affected and displaced populations, the media have a special obligation to report in a balanced and non-discriminatory manner that may go beyond the accepted standards of journalism. The media may wish to have the HIV data and their interpretation reviewed by technical experts before going to press. Specific training for reporters and editors regarding ethical issues and basic epidemiological methods may help them to better understand the complexity of the situation and report more accurately; similar training for media watch groups and human rights organisations may improve the monitoring of such situations and possibly reduce misreporting and subsequent discrimination. More rigorous HIV biological and behavioural surveillance should be undertaken in situations of conflict and displacement and humanitarian guidelines should be integrated with guidance on media relations and reporting responsibilities of humanitarian agencies. Finally, humanitarian agencies must ensure the data they release are sound and that any biases are clearly stated. Improved communication with the media will help to ensure more accurate reporting and interpretation.


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