Malawian media’s use of language when reporting on HIV and AIDS

I recently wrote a column for the Malawian Nation newspaper on ethical reporting of HIV/AIDS after I came across a Daily Times article that had the word ‘victim’ in a news report “…..250,000 victims are on antiretroviral therapy treatment”.

The media plays an important role in informing the public about HIV. Language is powerful in shaping people’s beliefs and thus influencing their behaviours. Inappropriate language can promote discriminatory stereotypes and harmful prejudices.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), one of the main global leaders on HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support, has guidelines on terms that should be avoided as they denigrate and undermine people living with HIV and AIDS e.g. ‘AIDS victim’, the word ‘victim’ is disempowering, it invokes images of helplessness and weakness, UNAIDS recommends use of ‘person living with HIV’.

So….armed with the recommended terminology from UNAIDS, I am putting the spotlight on Malawian media that are unethically reporting on HIV and AIDS. I chose Malawian newspapers that are available online and therefore searchable.

There are a number of terms that UNAIDS 2011 terminology guideline states should be avoided but I chose the ones which tend to more common ‘AIDS victims’, ‘AIDS patient’, ‘AIDS carrier’, ‘AIDS virus’, ‘AIDS sufferer’. There some really tricky terms…e.g. use of ‘HIV/AIDS’,  or the ‘fight against’ AIDS, ‘sex worker’ instead of ‘commercial sex worker’ or ‘prostitute’, ‘men who have sex with men’ instead of ‘gay’  but I refer you to the UNAIDS terminology for advice.

The newspapers I searched were Nyasatimes, the Times Group (Daily Times, Sunday Times, Weekend Times), the Nation and Malawivoice. Unfortunately the Malawi Democrat does not have a search function. There are a number of limitations with this ‘study’; the print papers – the Times Group and Nation do not put all their content online although what appears online is content extracted from the print edition. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the websites except for Nyasatimes are fairly new i.e. not more than three years or so..ish. I relied on the search functions on each newspapers’ website, these may have limited search functionality. I did not look for instances where the words were separated i.e. I did not look for the word “victim” on its own when not together with “AIDS victim” although the word “victim” is still inappropriate on its own if used in the context of an article about HIV.

What did I find?

AIDS victim – Nyasatimes 1, The Times Group 0, The Nation 3, Malawivoice 0

AIDS patient – Nyasatimes 1, The Times Group 0, The Nation 15, Malawivoice 2

AIDS carrier –  Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 0, Malawivoice 0

AIDS sufferer – Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 0, Malawivoice 0

AIDS virus – Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 1, Malawivoice 1

All in all Malawian media are doing a pretty ok job although some media houses, one in particular, needs to improve their reporting. I wonder what the not so appropriately named (Malawian) Association for Journalists Against HIV/AIDS would say about these results. But even Reuters, the big global news agency makes mistakes… the term ‘AIDS virus’ found in the Nation article was because of a mistake made in the original Reuters article. When I searched Reuters, I found 394 instances of the term ‘AIDS virus’, 29 instances of ‘AIDS victims’ some of these are as recent as yesterday

There is always room for improvement whether its Malawian media or global news agencies; during this exercise I learnt that I should avoid using HIV virus because that’s like saying human immunodeficiency virus virus!

4 thoughts on “Malawian media’s use of language when reporting on HIV and AIDS

  1. Today this term is acceptable and then tomorrow its not! thats the world we live in. What’s wrong with ‘fight against HIV/Aids’?
    AIDS victim can be very appropriate….if Im the spouse of philanderer then I am a victim of whatever he brings home . I am helpless indeed. I am also helpless if i am a child molested by a man with Aids..and so forth and so on
    Being ‘correct’ is not easy, there are so many common terms that are politically incorrect or socially insensitive but its very difficult to get to grips fully with them all. In media, we are after all human still and ..victims…of our own miseducation

    • I agree it depends on context but are we all able to adequately contextualise? Is it then fair to have hardfast guidelines or rules to guide lanugage? Language and metaphors are extremely powerful and not just in health. The difference between people’s reaction to bail out vs safety net has been found to be significant. We are often called upon to talk about AIDS like any disease to avoid the stigma associated with it but by elevating it to have it own language are creating more problems?

  2. It is good to address the issue of how stigmatizing language can be. The Guidelines also give explanations why certain terms should not be used. For example with regards to AIDS victim the guidelines state: Use person living with HIV. The word ‘victim’ is disempowering. Use AIDS only when referring to a person with a clinical diagnosis of AIDS.
    @anonymous: when there is a victim there is also a perpetrator: would you say all people living with HIV are victims? or perpetrators? and when does a victim become a perpetrator or the other way around? In the end, being empowered to protect yourself and others to enjoy your sexual and reproductive health, whether male or female, straight or gay, is one of the cornerstones of effective HIV prevention.

  3. This is a wonderful article. So enlightening, hopefully people will begin to change their mindset on issues to do with hiv/aids. Most of the terms used to describe people living with the virus are so degrading.

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