Even though HIV and hepatitis C are not spread through the transference of saliva, that scientifically proven fact didn't stop Nebraska State Senator Mike Gloor. On Jan. 10, Gloor proposed a bill that would make spitting on a police officer a misdemeanor in his state, but for someone living with HIV or hep C, the punishment is much more severe.
The Associated Press reported:
The bill is 1 of 5 Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning listed in his legislative package last week.
Under the measure, assaulting a peace officer with bodily fluid would be a misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The offense would be a felony if committed by those who know they are infected with HIV, AIDS or hepatitis B or C. The penalty would jump to up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
"The key was the biting," said [Alvin] Entin, [a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney] who is not familiar with Gallardo's case, "because that's a transmission of fluids, and this officer has to basically get tested for years and even if, God forbid, one of them comes back positive, then [the officer] has a lifetime of living with it."
Nowhere throughout the article does Chang add quotes from an HIV/AIDS expert countering Entin's claims (that saliva is a mode of transmission and the need to be tested for years after an exposure) with actual science. Again, these myths go completely unchallenged, hence allowing for untruth to morph into fact.
In fairness, I don't know these journalists personally. Nor do I know why these omissions occurred. Perhaps they did have an expert weigh in on the issue, but somehow it got edited out. Or perhaps they just don't know much about HIV and didn't know that what was being said was incorrect.
But those are not really valid excuses, because regardless of the intent, this journalistic misstep is dangerous. The media is extremely powerful. Whether it's on the radio, online, in newspapers or on television, people trust the information they are given and rely on it to stay informed. With this power comes an immense responsibility for journalists, because media shapes how people see themselves and the world around them. Journalists should have a moral and professional obligation to report the facts, not omit them or remain ignorant to them, because the world is following their cue.
Just think about it. The AP is a widely used and trusted news service that is distributed to roughly 1,700 newspapers and almost 5,000 television and radio broadcasts. Given the sensationalistic nature of this topic, that article can easily be picked up by any one of those news sources. And over time, despite the existence of Web sites like ours that provide accurate facts about HIV/AIDS, such articles can impact the psyches of its readers, deepening and spreading current attitudes and ignorance about HIV/AIDS that already exists among many people who live in the U.S.
Media can magnify stigma, misinformation and phobia. Just look at what it did for the "down low": It played off society's own homophobia, religious convictions and racism -- and it continues to negatively impact cultural attitudes about AIDS in black America.
Even though chronologically we are far removed from the "early days" of the U.S. HIV epidemic, when people living with HIV were banned from public swimming pools and often forced to eat off paper plates and plastic silverware, I still come across people who continue to experience that same type of treatment now. They've confided in me that they have encountered people who don't want to hug them or share a small plate of food. I've even heard stories of HIV-negative people bleaching their homes before and after someone with living with HIV comes to visit.
We're 30 years into this epidemic. I'd like to think we as a society have learned more about HIV/AIDS. But I often wonder whether this culture of increasingly poor journalism, coupled with persistent societal ignorance and bias, may be causing us to regress. If people can be led to believe that a cultural center is a mosque, and if two years into his presidency there are still thousands who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim who wasn't born in the United States, anything is possible.
Kellee Terrell is the news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPro. Follow TheBody.com on Twitter: