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Journalistic Ethics : AIDS Rumors--Do They Belong in News Stories?

Second of two parts

September 03, 1986|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

For months before fashion designer Perry Ellis died in May at the age of 46, there were rumors throughout the fashion industry that he had AIDS.

Was that rumor worth mentioning in Ellis' obituary?

The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsday and the San Francisco Examiner thought so; the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the vast majority of other newspapers did not. Newsweek mentioned the AIDS rumor; Time did not. United Press International mentioned it; Associated Press did not.

In many ways, the Ellis/AIDS story is a fascinating and instructive case study of how different journalists--all trying to behave responsibly--take different approaches to a very sensitive subject.

Different Approach

UPI, for example--virtually alone among news organizations--tried to "dispel the rumor" of AIDS, in the words of reporter Barbara Rosenberg.

Rosenberg's story quoted Dr. Harold Jaffe, an authority on AIDS from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, as saying that listing viral encephalitis as a cause of death is "not enough information to conclude whether Ellis had AIDS."

Last month, New York magazine went to the other extreme, with a cover story that said, ". . . many people believe Ellis had AIDS, and given the evidence, it seems likely."

Patricia Morrisroe, the author of the story, says she recognizes the "tough questions" of personal privacy and journalistic ethics involved in writing about Ellis and AIDS, especially since neither Ellis nor his doctors publicly acknowledged that he had AIDS.

Indeed, Morrisroe's story quotes a friend of Ellis as saying, "Perry had ample opportunity to discuss certain things while he was alive, and he didn't. I have to respect that."

Deaths Linked to AIDS

Despite this--and despite Ellis' having been, in Morrisroe's own words, "a fanatic about his privacy"--she wrote in detail about his relationship with Laughlin Barker (whom she described as "his business partner and lover") and about Barker's death early this year at the age of 37 . . . and she linked both deaths to AIDS.

Why?

"The two deaths had a great impact on Ellis' company, and yet the people . . . (in the fashion industry) were . . . not talking about what had happened," Morrisroe says.

Morrisroe says she spent two months researching the Ellis story, interviewed 52 people and wound up thinking that "the evidence . . . clearly points to the fact that he did have AIDS. . . . One couldn't do the story without touching on that."

The Newsweek story on Ellis' death also mentioned the reluctance of many in the "heavily gay (fashion) industry to admit that AIDS" had been responsible for several other recent deaths--"for fear of damaging their public image and jeopardizing profitable labels. . . ."

There are "escalating fears about the disease" in the industry, Newsweek said, in the course of noting, "Within the . . . industry, many people believed that Ellis had suffered from AIDS."

Maynard Parker, editor of Newsweek, says the magazine's fashion editor told him two or three months before Ellis' death that the rumor about his having AIDS was "the talk of the fashion world," but Newsweek didn't publish anything about Ellis and AIDS until after he died.

"He was unwilling and his colleagues were unwilling to talk about it and we respected his privacy," Parker says. "But . . . when he died, we were dealing with a household name . . . we were doing a disservice to our readers in not making it clear the . . . how and why of his dying."

Since no one has complained that Newsweek's story was inaccurate, Parker says, he believes that his decision has been vindicated. Moreover, Parker says, public health care officials are concerned about the under-reporting of AIDS deaths by doctors who are understandably determined to safeguard the privacy of AIDS victims and their families. By withholding this information, health care officials say, doctors distort the data needed for further research and for the establishment of sound public health policy. By not publishing information on AIDS deaths, it is thought, the press contributes to this problem and also compounds the social stigma already attached to AIDS.

In earlier generations, mental illness, venereal disease, tuberculosis and cancer were similarly ignored by the press--and similarly stigmatized by society: Unmentionable means untouchable.

Louis D. Boccardi, president of the Associated Press, says he can recall a time when "people kept cancer out of the paper. . . . There was an impression that the victim bore responsibility for having the disease. . . . In the present climate . . . AIDS is a parallel situation.

"Most of those close to the deceased know what he died of," Boccardi says, and for the general public, "the cause of death of a prominent person . . . is a relevant piece of information . . . a part of the story . . . not a ghoulish question."

Two Different Issues

But there are two issues involved here:

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