Tips for the Media on How to Stop Screwing Up HIV/AIDS Coverage

This year, we saw a number of medical breakthroughs that made headlines: The discovery of two rare human antibodies that kill 90 percent of all HIV strains, which could provide the basis for a vaccine. The first-ever successful clinical trial of a microbicide, which could bring us one step closer to women being able to have more control over their sexual health. And the finding that pre-exposure prophylaxis can reduce HIV infections among gay men.

This year also brought major events that got heavy news coverage: The XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna. The first-ever national HIV/AIDS strategy for the U.S. The return of U.S. AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) waiting lists, which had been empty, but are now full again. A harsh reminder that you can be imprisoned and potentially executed for being gay in certain countries. And a confirmation that poverty is the top risk factor for HIV among heterosexuals living in inner cities.

On the pop culture end, HIV was also present. Part of the porn industry temporarily shut down when adult film actor Derrick Burts tested positive. Project Runway's Mondo Guerra disclosed his status on air. The Other City, a documentary about HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., debuted to rave reviews. And on World AIDS Day, celebrities "died" on social media, only to have some billionaire "resuscitate" them when it looked as if they might not be able to raise enough money to do so through smaller donations.

But even in the wake of all of this, the media still doesn't report enough about the global pandemic and, most importantly, there are not enough stories exploring the U.S. epidemic. (Newsflash: AIDS is still a huge problem here in the U.S.) And when the media does tackle AIDS in America, too many times it borrows from FOX News' playbook of sensationalism, fabrications and one-sided narratives.

Just how many down low and criminalization stories can a person take?

And this is where I come in. I looked over 2010's media coverage of HIV/AIDS and came up with some important lessons that journalists should keep in mind for next year:

Include More Voices of People Living With HIV: This is a "no duh" if we want to eliminate stigma. But minus the media frenzy around Project Runway's Mondo Guerra disclosing his HIV status on air, mainstream media almost never showcases the real voices of people living with HIV.

Wouldn't it be awesome if -- on a day other than World AIDS Day -- we could hear people living with HIV talk about love and marriage; stigma and discrimination; pregnancy and family; treatment and adhering to drugs; the trials and tribulations of being on an ADAP waiting list; disclosing to others; and all that other good stuff? Perhaps "reality" only works for the Kardashians.

Bigwigs Are Not the Only People You Should Pay Attention To: Did you know that, this summer at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, sex workers from around the world had a major presence (including a huge rally)? Or that the same was true of drug users, who had an international declaration on their behalf signed by more than 18,000 people? Did you know that UNIFEM and the ATHENA Network released a comprehensive report that highlighted the lack of female leadership in HIV policymaking despite the fact that the global face of AIDS is more female than male?

Of course you did. But the rest of the world probably did not: All of those stories were overlooked, because journalists were more interested in writing about Bill Gates, Annie Lennox and other high-power players who were present at the conference. Please don't forget about the grassroots work that is being done to better the lives of people living with HIV. You might be missing out on a good story.

Teens and Seniors Have Sex Too: If it wasn't for the reality shows 16 and Pregnant and Sunset Daze, or the occasional sensationalized stories about "retirement homes gone wild" or "teen sex parties," one would think that these two groups never had sex. Oh, but they do -- and the media (along with most of society) needs to get over its hang-ups and begin exploring the alarming and rising rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among these demographics. This means fewer interviews with Bristol Palin and company, and more interviews with women such as Marvelyn Brown and Jane Fowler.

The Fight for LGBT Equality Is Connected to HIV Risk: While the media continues to improve its reporting on LGBT issues -- especially around bullying, homophobia, DADT (the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law), marriage equality and job discrimination -- more needs to be done to illustrate how these issues directly impact one's own HIV risk.

It may come as a surprise to some that there are still many cases (and many states) in which it is legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the U.S. And if people can be fired from their job, that means they can lose their financial stability. They become less able to look after their health care, and in some cases may even become homeless. A slew of reasons begin to emerge that can make those individuals more vulnerable to HIV.

(Hint, hint: National LGBT organizations, perhaps now is the time to make HIV/AIDS a platform issue. If you do, the media might follow.)

Try Normalizing HIV; It's Not That Hard: HIV has always been the "cheese that stands alone" -- it's even classified separately from other sexually transmitted diseases. One way to help destigmatize the disease is to include a discussion about HIV into stories in which HIV is simply a fact to be noted, not the focus of the entire piece. For example, in a feature about people struggling to pay for their health care or the difficulties of adhering to daily medications, why not include a person living with HIV as one of the interviewees? Or in a story about Mother's Day, or Valentine's Day, or Veteran's Day, why not include the perspective of an HIV-positive person? HIV doesn't always have to exist outside the box.

Read the rest of the lessons here.

Want to learn more about the major HIV/AIDS developments, trends and advocates who rocked 2010? Take a look at's new series, HIV/AIDS Year in Review: Looking Back on 2010 (and Ahead to 2011).