Newsday’s Laurie Garrett Critiques Media Coverage of HIV/AIDS Epidemic
The March/April edition of Extra!, the publication of FAIR, or Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, features an interview with Laurie Garrett, an AIDS reporter for Newsday and author of "The Coming Plague" and "Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health." At the 13th International Conference on AIDS in Durban last summer, Garrett gave a speech on the "failures of journalism in the face of [AIDS]," a theme she expanded upon in the interview. Garrett said that while AIDS coverage that aims to "tug at some emotional heartstrings" is "always fine," the media should move beyond "disturbing photos" and examine underlying aspects of the epidemic, such as AIDS funding priorities, the role of political leadership in solving the epidemic and vaccine research efforts. "At this stage, the role of the journalist has to be in demanding to know why we still have this epidemic, why we haven't been able to solve it, how are the billions of dollars that are being thrown at the problem being spent, and where are the responsibilities of people of power and leadership around the world, especially in countries that have high incidence of HIV," Garrett said. She added that many readers want coverage that includes "practical information," such as updates on prevention methods, vaccine efforts and charitable work. "[T]hey're just not all that interested in being pushed to tears alone," she said. Coverage of HIV/AIDS has "gotten better," she said, as journalists become more aware of issues such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, debt forgiveness and the impact of histories of colonialism. She added that reporting on vaccine efforts is especially "difficult" for journalists, who must often balance their hope for a vaccine with the pragmatic view that most vaccines will not prove successful. "I think the hope for an AIDS vaccine is a difficult dance for everybody involved. ... On the one hand, you just have to have hope. ... On the other hand, we don't really have a product that looks great right now." She added, "Every time I do a vaccine story I have to remind the readers that we're still in the early stage here, that this one vaccine potential I'm writing about is not the Holy Grail. It's yet another incremental achievement on what's going to be a long road." Even if a successful vaccine is discovered, she continued, it remains unclear what company will choose to manufacture it, since there is a lack of "incentive" for drug firms to make the product.
Getting Past 'Big Science'
Garrett added that while coverage of medicine and AIDS has "improved greatly," it is still "skewed toward the bastions of big science," institutions like the NIH, the Pasteur Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And while she feels that science reporters have "gotten much better at their jobs," Garrett added that conflicts of interest still occur, sometimes without the journalists fully realizing them. Garrett explained that a study conducted by the National Association of Science Writers found that more than half of the organization's members believed it was "all right to take money from drug companies to cover a story that was directly related to a product [the companies] produce." Even large newspapers and network news organizations that have "strict policies" designed to avoid such conflicts can get mired in the "subtleties" of funding, such as advertising revenue, she added. News agencies' concerns with maintaining such funding "is definitely skewing the priorities in health coverage at the network level," she added (Extra!, March/April 2001). To read a reprint of Garrett's speech presented at the international AIDS conference, enter http://www.cjr.org/year/00/4/garrett.asp into your Web browser.