Scourge. Plague. Killer disease. All are terms still routinely used by Kenya's media to describe the HIV epidemic more than thirty years after it was first identified. Experts say the media needs to step up to promote a better understanding of the illness.
"The use of words like 'scourge' or 'sufferer' in the media to refer to HIV/AIDS or to people living with it... shows the disease is such a bad thing, yet there are people living with it, and examples are countless, who are doing normal things and leading normal lives," Allan Maleche, a human rights lawyer and head of the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS, told IRIN/PlusNews. "Stigma has been one of the issues that helped HIV to spread, and there is need to train the media on how to report HIV in less stigmatizing ways."
Media outlets often concentrate on the more salacious or scandalous details of stories involving HIV rather than the more informative, educational aspects.
One woman interviewed by a Kenyan TV station earlier this year told IRIN/PlusNews of her disappointment when the story was broadcast. "The journalists dwelt mainly on how I got infected instead of how I protected my unborn child from infection, which was my main aim of calling the journalist," she said.
Difficult to cover
Journalists IRIN/PlusNews spoke to said stories about HIV were more difficult to cover than other news stories, involving in-depth research, a strong understanding of scientific subjects and tough interviews dealing with very personal issues.
"Covering HIV and AIDS is... a sensitive area and... you have to look at issues from the [position] of the interviewee... People living with HIV are often misjudged, blamed for ‘getting it’, which in turn leads to their being stigmatized and shunned," Waweru Mugo, a freelance Kenyan journalist who has written extensively on HIV, told IRIN/PlusNews. "This therefore requires a journalist to be careful with the language [so] that [it] does not discriminate and stigmatize further."
"I suggest that journalists are trained and retrained in the use of language, for it requires ethical and professional handling," he added.
Jane Thuo, chief executive officer of the Association of Media Women in Kenya, noted that there is a need to ensure HIV continues to receive press coverage amid newer, equally serious health issues such as cancer and other non-communicable diseases.
In 2002, the Coalition of Media Health Professionals produced a guide to reporting on HIV for Kenyan journalists in an effort to boost journalists' sensitivity on the subject. But experts say there is a need for specific training for journalists who write about HIV.
One such training, sponsored by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), was recently held in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Tom Japanni, a senior BBC producer and trainer for the two-day workshop, noted that journalists were well placed to simplify the medical terminologies and disseminate them to the society.
|The journalists dwelt mainly on how I got infected instead of how I protected my unborn child from infection, which was my main aim|
"We are advantaged to be able to interpret health-related research findings, parliamentary bills and other related instruments, even in our local languages," he said. "That is all the more reason journalists should be well equipped to deliver the correct information to the society. You must be informed for you to inform others."
"There are people in Kenya who still do not understand HIV beyond transmission, prevention and treatment," Helen Barsosio, a Kenyan-based reproductive health researcher and the technical advisor on HIV programs for the NGO HOPE worldwide, told IRIN/PlusNews. "This kind of training is ideal for journalists to enable them to understand the correct language to use while reporting and to identify the stories within the HIV main story."
Having an effect
"We train the journalist on the art of interview, among other areas," said Anne Mikia, a radio specialist and trainer at Internews, which supports local media around the world. “Interviewing a person living with HIV needs a lot of skill, lest you offend the interviewee.”
Although Mikia says it is difficult to measure the impact of their trainings, she noted that stigmatizing language and pictures were on the decline in most major media houses.
"The trainings... go for only one week, and that is not sufficient for a journalist to acquire absolute effective skills on HIV reporting," she added, noting that journalists need to use their own initiative to develop the skills to report on HIV.
A local network of HIV-positive journalists is also playing a role in improving reporting on HIV in the media. "We realized that journalists rarely speak about themselves but report only what others have said or done. As journalists living with HIV, we can easily address HIV issues because we relate with them," said Elvis Bassudde, chairman of the East Africa chapter of Journalists Living with HIV/AIDS.
"A journalist living with HIV and who sits in an editorial committee can [more] easily campaign for a space for an HIV story than one who is not."