Racist media coverage is a big part of unjust HIV criminalization in Canada. We have the data to prove it.
Two years ago I started a study with my colleagues, Colin Hastings, Chris Sanders, Michelle Hayman and Laura Bisaillon. We wanted to research claims about racist mainstream media coverage that Black people living with HIV/AIDS and advocates in Canada have been making for years. To mark World AIDS Day 2016, we released our findings: a report titled Callous, Cold and Deliberately Duplicitous: Racialization, Immigration and the Representation of HIV Criminalization in Canadian Mainstream Newspapers.
Our study is based on a landmark analysis of 1,680 newspaper articles, between 1989 and 2015. (For a summary of the report, click here.)
Our research uncovers a chronic pattern of stereotyping, demonization and racism in mainstream Canadian newspaper coverage. For example, while Black immigrant men living with HIV make up only 15 percent of defendants in HIV nondisclosure criminal cases, they are the focus of 61 percent of the news articles in our study. Almost half (49 percent) of the coverage focuses on just four Black immigrant men, each of whom was involved in a separate criminal case.
It’s not just that the media are obsessed with cases involving Black men. Reporters use age-old stereotypes to continually make connections between race, sexual danger and crime. In these stories, Black men living with HIV are “sexual monsters,” “HIV killers” and “AIDS spreading lotharios.” The number of their sex partners, their bodies and their sexual prowess is repeatedly mentioned. When a defendant is White, you’d have no idea. But when a defendant is Black, it gets foregrounded. We repeatedly hear how a defendant has an exotic “Ugandan” or “Rwandan” strain of HIV or is an immigrant or refugee from an African country. As a result, Black immigrant men are framed as a prototype of the person who does not disclose, despite the fact that most defendants in criminal cases in Canada are white.
It’s hard to imagine newspaper readers could come away from this coverage understanding HIV nondisclosure as anything other than a crime. They wouldn’t know that the majority of people living with HIV take great care to protect their sex partners. They’d have little sense that HIV is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to transmit with effective treatments and a low or undetectable viral load. Nor would they realize that criminal law does next to nothing to protect people from HIV.
We think this kind of coverage needs to stop. It’s time for mainstream reporters to move past sensationalist crime story frameworks when reporting on HIV nondisclosure. It’s time to leave behind demonizing and stigmatizing language. It’s time to start reporting on the science of HIV transmission. We need accuracy, balance and, yes, nuance and complexity. We need reporters covering HIV nondisclosure cases to interview people living with HIV, advocates and AIDS organizations for enlightened perspectives.
We need a mainstream press that creates a positive presence for Black men living with HIV.
Eric Mykhalovskiy is a professor of sociology at York University. He has conducted critical social science research on HIV/AIDS for over 20 years and researched HIV criminalization for the past seven years.