Read between the lines the next time you see a newspaper article with AIDS stats. Take, say UNAIDS’ annual global AIDS report. As the mainstream press dutifully announced early last year, South Africa has more HIV infections (4.7 million) than any other country on the planet.

But Rian Malan, a South African reporter, spent most of 2001 trying to confirm the statistic and came up empty. In a thought-provoking article in the November 22 Rolling Stone, he wrote, "When UNAIDS announces that 14 million Africans have succumbed to AIDS, it does not mean 14 million bodies have been counted. It means that 14 million people have theoretically died.“ The figures are ”extrapolated" -- a weasly word -- from leftover blood samples taken from South African prenatal clinics.

The debate over numbers is not limited to poorer countries. Gay journo Andrew Sullivan has inveighed against the media for effectively reprinting last year’s CDC press release that one in three young black gay men has HIV. “Complete reiteration of CDC orthodoxy,” he complained in June in The New Republic, “with nary an attempt to subject any of it to the teeniest bit of skepticism or statistical analysis.” According to Sullivan, that bombshell may have been based on only one or two infections in a six-city study that included a mere 122 black men with HIV. To arrive at that figure, the CDC had followed the UNAIDS recipe and calculated backward.

No one is impugning UNAIDS or the CDC, but it’s not a stretch to spy self-interest in inflating HIV rates. Attention-grabbing numbers mean bigger bucks in aid.

For years, activists have blasted the press for not covering the epidemic aggressively enough. The criticism now, it seems, has shifted from quantity to quality.