Like the Globe, most other papers have become far more specific in their use of sexual terms in AIDS stories since Hudson's death. But vague phrases still creep into print occasionally. In October, a Los Angeles Times story said, "Health authorities say that the AIDS virus is transmitted only by bodily fluids during physical contact"--which could mislead readers into thinking they could contract the virus by brushing up against a sweaty person.
Public health service authorities said reporters who have been covering AIDS for a long time generally avoid this kind of dangerous journalistic shorthand; they try to spell out precisely how AIDS is transmitted and they often point out that medical authorities say AIDS cannot be transmitted through casual contact. But reporters new to a story often fail to include such essential qualifiers.
Because AIDS is such a powerful and sensitive story, with so many immediate, personal ramifications, newspaper editors said they have become increasingly aware that they must exercise special care in all aspects of the story, not just on potentially offensive words.
Many people involved in the AIDS battle resent the media's use of the phrase \o7 AIDS victims\f7 for example; they prefer \o7 people with AIDS \f7 as less likely to intensify the sense of helplessness such individuals already feel. Most longtime AIDS reporters try to comply. But most papers are less cooperative in acceding to another request--that lovers of gays who die from AIDS be identified as \o7 survivors \f7 in obituaries; editors prefer to reserve that designation for legal spouses--although some occasionally identify surviving lovers as \o7 companions.\f7
(Obituaries are a whole sub-species of AIDS journalism, presenting editors with several dilemmas--most notably, deciding whether to identify someone as having died of AIDS if neither his doctor nor his family is willing to say so. The San Francisco Chronicle has been most consistent in identifying AIDS as a cause of death and the Washington Post has often done so, too, but most papers have declined to specify AIDS as a cause of death without official confirmation. Editors said they don't want to invade the privacy of the deceased or his family--and they don't want to risk legal action if they turn out to be wrong. But critics say this practice further stigmatizes AIDS patients and initially made it possible for the government to underestimate the scope of the epidemic and to delay AIDS research, funding and education.)
Newspaper headline writers--who must try to summarize an entire story in a very few words--have special problems with a story like AIDS. Even the most responsible newspapers have published headlines about "AIDS Tests," for example; but there are no tests for AIDS, only for the presence of the AIDS antibody. A mere technicality? No. Many have tested positive for the virus and have not developed the disease.
Dr. Neil Schram, former head of the Los Angeles City/County AIDS Task Force, said he once heard about a man who tried to kill himself after testing positive, mistakenly thinking he had the disease itself and was doomed to die when, in fact, he didn't have (and may never get) the disease.
"Guiding an AIDS story through the reporting and editing process can be nearly as precarious as escorting tankers in the Persian Gulf," said Thomas Heinen, reader-contact editor at the Milwaukee Journal.
The Journal has tried to minimize these problems by formulating a two-page policy for "editing in the age of AIDS." A few other papers have a policy of asking reporters knowledgeable about AIDS to vet all AIDS stories. The Boston Globe asks editors to check headlines on AIDS stories with the reporters who wrote them.
The New York Times and Washington Post, each of which has more than a dozen reporters and editors covering science and medicine, now provide the most thorough coverage of that aspect of the story in the American press, but as the AIDS story has continued to develop, different papers have come to cover it in different ways.
"I thought this was the biggest story I've ever seen or heard of in my life, and so I . . . put the best reporter I got on it (full time)," said James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Thus, for most of 1987, the Tribune's John Crewdson has been writing exclusively about AIDS, specializing in controversial stories that run contrary to the prevailing view on everything from the threat of heterosexual spread to the discovery of the AIDS virus to official projections on the numbers of AIDS cases expected in the United States.