Last year, when David McCallum and Stephen Klaidman of the Institute for Health Policy Studies in Washington were preparing a program on media coverage of AIDS, they titled it "AIDS: A Moving Story."
"Moving" indeed--"moving" as in emotional . . . and "moving" as in changing. AIDS is a human tragedy of staggering proportions. But AIDS is also a story that has everything a journalist could ask for: Mystery. Death. Sex. Drugs. Rivalry. Controversy. Politics. Money. And change. Constant change.
How does the press cover such a story--a story about a disease that didn't even have an official name until it had already killed more than 200 people, a disease that has now killed more than 27,000 Americans and may have infected as many as 5 million to 10 million people worldwide, a disease with no known cure, a disease with--in the beginning--no known cause and with, even now, conflicting and contradictory information being released, leaked, trumpeted, denied and challenged almost daily?
Three months ago, USA Today assured its readers, based on generally accepted medical evidence, that antibodies to the AIDS virus "take (only) six to 12 weeks to appear (in a blood test)."
But three weeks later, the British magazine Lancet reported a new study that showed some people carry the AIDS antibody for up to 14 months before tests can detect it.
On Oct. 6, the Washington Post reported on a study at a Baltimore clinic for sexually transmitted diseases showing AIDS infections spreading through heterosexual contact at "a rate much higher than previous studies have reported."
But five days later, the New York Times reported on a study at a New York clinic for sexually transmitted diseases showing "nothing has changed. . . . The AIDS virus is not spreading widely beyond members of known risk groups and their partners" to the general heterosexual population.
Is acquired immune deficiency syndrome a serious threat to the general heterosexual community? How accurate are tests for the AIDS antibody? What are the privacy and civil liberties questions implicit in AIDS testing? Will an AIDS vaccine ever be discovered? Where did AIDS come from? What percentage of the people who are infected with the AIDS virus will ultimately get AIDS? What percentage of those who get AIDS will ultimately die?
Medical experts have been wrestling with these questions for several years now, and editors and reporters have been wrestling with the often contradictory answers to these questions--and with resultant questions of their own--for almost as long.
Last August, two days before the Los Angeles Times published a 16-page special section, "AIDS: A Global Assessment," William F. Thomas, editor of The Times, said he was pleased with the section, "but even after you read it, you've got your hands full of smoke. . . . Everything is still so inconclusive. It's hard to decide what to do (with AIDS) in the paper. All you can do is chase the bouncing ball."
In the beginning--from 1981 until, at many papers, mid-1985--the press did not chase the bouncing ball very aggressively. Indeed, the press, like most other institutions in American society, reacted very slowly to AIDS.
No AIDS story appeared on the front page of the New York Times until May 25, 1983, for example--by which time there had already been 1,450 cases of AIDS and 558 AIDS deaths in the United States.
'Blood, Sex and Politics'
"We couldn't . . . get the press interested (at first)," said Walter Dowdle, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "Then, when the press finally did pick up on it, it was a sort of blood, sex and politics approach."
"The American people rely on the press" to hold the other institutions accountable on "issues of great public concern," said Dr. Marcus Conant, chairman of a statewide task force on AIDS. On AIDS, Conant said, the press "focused on some of the superficial . . . attention-getting issues and did not look at the greater sociological questions that this epidemic is raising."
Virtually all the earliest AIDS stories were simply rewrites of medical journal articles. With a few noteworthy exceptions, there was almost no enterprise or investigative reporting and little effort to question local or federal authorities about what they were doing to combat the growing epidemic.
But in 1987, several papers have full-time AIDS reporters, medical writers at many major papers spend 65% to 90% of their time covering AIDS and most major papers now routinely assign other reporters to write about the personal, social, political and economic aspects of AIDS as well. Many newspapers were publishing so many AIDS stories earlier this year--sometimes four or five in a single day--that some editors (and some readers) began asking if the press was paying too much attention to the disease.