Newspaper criticised over misleading HIV reporting

MISA-Swaziland Analysis
11 February 2013

Dr Nduduzo Dube, program manager at Swaziland’s AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has written a stinging letter to the Times of Swaziland about its false and sensationalist reporting of HIV and AIDS stories.

“I have always noted the negativity with which the local press has handled all the matters that border around the provision of health services in the country,” said Dube in a letter published by the Times’ weekend tabloid Times of Swaziland Sunday.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation partners with the Ministry of Health and the Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) programme in providing treatment and services to people living with HIV.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “standard antiretroviral therapy … consists of the combination of at least three antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to maximally suppress the HIV virus and stop the progression of HIV disease”.

Dube questions why, in the past, the Times Sunday reported that the country had ran out of ART medication, when, according to Dube, stocks were simply low.

“Instead of reporting low stocks, someone would choose to report stock-outs.

“There is always a tendency to sensationalise all the reports concerning HIV services in the country thereby causing unnecessary alarm and despondency in the [ART] programme.”

Dube says the Times Sunday unnecessarily criticises the programme and, in doing so, alienates people living with HIV.

He emphasises, however, that his letter is not an attempt to close down debate on HIV and AIDS. Rather, he calls for accurate and fair reporting – insofar as not further stigmatising people living HIV, and so people who need to take medication are not scared by panic-driven, sensationalist journalism.

“I am not saying you should not report about the shortcomings of the programme but please try to avoid unnecessary alarm that might result in detrimental outcomes like patients stopping to take their medication unnecessarily.”

Dube was prompted to write the letter after the Times Sunday recently ran a front-page story about supposedly fatal ART medication. The headline read: “Deadly ARVs for Swazis.”

“While reading the story”, said Dube, “I was looking forward to the writer explaining how the drug is likely to cause death. However, in the story he spoke about its side effects on the nerves, change in body shape and potential of causing diabetes.”

He continued: “How is damage to the nerves on the feet and hands making the drug deadly? The writer, instead of writing facts about why the drug was phased out which includes the long-term side effects of abnormal fat distribution leading to changes in body shape which is rarely associated with diabetes, spoke about damage to the nerves but failed to connect that to fatality.”

Replying to the letter, the editor of Times Sunday said: “We may not all be doctors but understand that Diabetes IS [sic] a deadly condition. This assertion is supported by various medical research journals and reviews … A person with diabetes has a shorter life expectancy and about twice the risk of dying on any given day as a person of similar age without diabetes. Stavudile (the ART medication at the centre of the debate) is likely to cause diabetes in some patients.”

In further response to Dr Dube, the editor writes: “Otherwise, thank you very much for writing in. Your criticism and valuable information on this topic is very helpful.”

The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland), a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech, conducted research in 2010 on how the Times of Swaziland group of newspapers (including the weekday publication Times of Swaziland, Saturday’s Swazi News, and Times of Swaziland Sunday) reports on HIV and AIDS stories. On a positive note, the study found that no story (that was analysed over the month-long monitoring period) perpetuated negative stereotypes of people living with HIV.

However, “the most staggering aspect of the HIV/AIDS reporting was the complete absence of people affected by HIV/AIDS and the voices of people living with HIV/AIDS.

“The absence of these critical voices was coupled with the habit of single sourcing. Nearly two out of three stories had only one source. Where stories warranted the inclusion of sources living with HIV/AIDS or those affected by HIV/AIDS, they were not there.”

MISA-Swaziland notes that not much has changed since 2010. Reporting on HIV and AIDS remains shallow and misleading. Stories focus on ‘events’ and ‘programme launches’ rather than the people in the middle of the story, the human face – the heartbeat. There is no doubt that reporting on HIV and AIDS in Swaziland could be more accurate and more humane.

For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director



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