HIV/AIDS has a definite presence in the Kannada press today, as training, information and sensitisation for journalists has improved, discovers Shangon Das Gupta
It has been 21 years since the first case of HIV was reported in India, in 1986. Today, an estimated 2.5 million Indians are living with HIV. Serious efforts are being made to raise awareness levels in rural communities to ensure accurate information and knowledge. To do this, there is a strong dependence on the regional language media, particularly newspapers.
How well is the mainstream language media doing on reporting on HIV/AIDS? Most NGOs, activists and agencies engaged with the issue believe that the quality of coverage on HIV/AIDS is wanting, inaccurate and mostly sensational. However, a closer look suggests that media coverage is changing, and for the better.
In 2005-6 a study was carried out by Communication for Development and Learning (CDL), a Bangalore-based NGO, on the coverage on HIV/AIDS in the five leading newspapers in Karnataka. These papers were scrutinised for two months in 2002 and again for two months in 2005, for all reports and features on HIV/AIDS. The study aimed to assess both the extent of editorial space as well as the quality of the content.
A comparison of the data indicates a significant increase in the spatial coverage of HIV/AIDS. There was also some improvement in the editorial quality of the coverage.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the coverage in both 2002 (73%) and 2005 (68%) was of AIDS-related events. But the database in 2005 also had about 15 articles on serious and complex issues related to HIV/AIDS.
The slant of the stories, too, had undergone a change in 2005. From coverage that was largely negative, depressing and alarming in 2002, the coverage in 2005 included analysis of studies, spread, and efforts at intervention. One newspaper also carried a monthly Q&A column on HIV/AIDS. Clearly, people were willing to talk about it.
Making it happen
How did this happen? Rashmi B, a journalist in a leading Kannada paper, says: “Many agencies working on HIV/AIDS organised orientation/sensitisation programmes for journalists. This helps us to understand this issue better.”
“Agencies working on HIV/AIDS also now stress, in their training and other activities, that AIDS does not mean death. The emphasis is clearly on the fact that there is life after AIDS, that AIDS is a manageable condition,” says Bhagavan Das of Citizen Alliance for Rural Development and Training Society (CARDTS), Karnataka. “This has created a change in the media attitude to the issue.”
Along with providing an understanding of the issue, the training also includes sessions on appropriate terminology and biases. “Our first challenge was to stop journalists from passing judgments on positive people,” says Ujjwala Jatkar of CDL who has trained several batches of Kannada journalists at the district level. “For this, we drew attention to the baggage that is inbuilt in the vocabulary. Once they realise this, journalists themselves are willing to coin new terms that are neutral.” Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), for instance. conducted sensitisation programmes for language journalists in six states, including Karnataka.
A media manual, ‘HIV/AIDS in the news – journalists as catalysts’ produced by the Population Foundation of India in 2005, contains guidelines for reporting on HIV/AIDS, and has been translated into Kannada and given to journalists at the district level. It includes a table on correct and incorrect terminology:
People Living With HIV/AIDS
Transmitting HIV infection
Multiple sex partners
“More people are willing to talk about HIV today,” says Dr Vasundhara Bhupathi, a medical doctor and freelance writer. “Information to write on the issue is much easier to access. It is not a secret any more. All this improves the stories that are written.”
A dip-stick survey
For the purposes of this article, a dip-stick survey was carried out in October 2007 in the same set of newspapers used in the CDL survey, to gauge coverage in 2007. It came up with some interesting findings. It revealed that not only has the coverage increased (15 in the month surveyed) but issues such as paediatric AIDS, breast feeding and the prevention of parent to child transmission (PPTCT) were also included.
“That journalists are now coming forward to write on complex issues such as PPTCT and children with AIDS shows a marked improvement in the understanding of the issue. It also indicates that journalists are willing to examine complex aspects of HIV/AIDS,” says G B Meti, deputy director (IEC), Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society (KSAPS).
“As important as the reporters’ understanding is the fact that there has been a change in the attitude of the editors, who are willing to carry such stories in their papers. These subjects were earlier seen as taboo,” says Asha Ramaiah of Karnataka Network of Positive People (KNP+).
“The mood is encouraging. From a blame game and criticising journalists, the agencies working on HIV/AIDS are now working to build our capacity to write on HIV/AIDS with sensitivity and depth,” says P Hebbar, a journalist in a leading language paper. “The trainings we go for are interesting and well-designed. One training even had a quiz which brought out the levels of our own awareness.”
Other than training and orientation programmes, innovations such as small grants and awards for HIV/AIDS journalism have been instituted for Kannada journalists. These motivate journalists to write consistent and high quality articles on the issue.
Says Vikas Verma of UNICEF, which supports one such award: “The UNICEF Award for HIV/AIDS Journalism was intended to appreciate the work being done by journalists. Equally important is the fact that the award will set standards of good journalism and include sensitive, responsible and informed writing. Next year we hope the bar can be raised even further.”
Clearly there is a change at various levels -- in the understanding of journalists and also editors. Yet eventually, it is only when the reader absorbs the message and is willing to practise and preach responsible behaviour that the media will have an impact.
For an issue that was non-existent in the media till as recently as 10 years ago, the change to fuller coverage and the creation of a new vocabulary is indeed to be appreciated.
(Shangon Das Gupta is a Bangalore-based development writer and print media researcher. The findings of the media research and analysis are used to design innovative models for building partnerships with the mainstream media to encourage informed reportage of social issues)
InfoChange News & Features, April 2008