A new report documents racism and xenophobia in HIV non-disclosure media coverage in Canada
by Larry Buhl
A new report documents the anti-Black and anti-immigrant bias in Canadian newspaper coverage of HIV non-disclosure criminal cases. According to the report, “Callous, Cold, and Deliberately Duplicitous,” Black and immigrant men overrepresented in coverage of these cases, and the coverage “stigmatizes Black heterosexual men as dangerous sexual and public health threats.”
This reporting trend occurs despite evidence that the majority of people who face criminal charges for HIV non-disclosure in Canada are white.
The report was written by a five-person team of academics who have been active for years in the arenas of community organizing and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The team examined 1,700 articles from 1989 through 2015 and found that Black immigrant men living with HIV in Canada are dramatically overemphasized in Canadian mainstream newspaper stories about HIV non-disclosure criminal cases.
By the numbers, researchers found:
• More than two thirds of newspaper articles analyzed focused on the race of defendants.
• African, Caribbean and Black men living with HIV are disproportionately represented in mainstream newspaper articles.
• While Black men account for twenty percent of people who have faced criminal charges related to HIV non-disclosure in Canada, they are the focus of sixty-two percent of newspaper articles on such cases.
• Immigrant and refugee defendants are over-represented by coverage. Only eighteen percent of defendants in HIV non-disclosure cases are immigrants or refugees, yet stories about immigrants and refugees account for sixty-two percent of news stories.
One of the report’s authors, Eric Mykhalovskiy, a professor of sociology at York University, tells A&U that he was shocked by the scale of stereotyping and stigmatizing by Canadian media outlets in their sensationalistic coverage of HIV non-disclosure cases.
“What comes through is the suggestion these defendants are a disease threat and morally reprehensible, and that’s aggravated when the defendant is a black man because those cases have received the bulk of media attention,” Mykhalovskiy says. “And the coverage has been remarkably consistent in that they are described as disease threats endangering Canadians.”
Researchers also found that almost half of the coverage where a person has been charged with failing to disclose HIV status to a partner focuses on the cases of four Black immigrant men. One of these men, Johnson Aziga from South Sudan, was described in sensationalistic headlines as “HIV Attacker,” “AIDS-spreading Lothario,” and “HIV Murderer.”
“There is a pattern of mainstream coverage of crime that emphasizes the links between race and criminality and this is an expression of this pattern,” Mykhalovskiy adds.
Canadian law requires people with HIV to disclose their status before engaging in activities that might engage in a realistic possibility of “serious bodily harm.” In its most recent ruling on the matter, in 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada decided a person with a low viral load and uses a condom during vaginal intercourse is not required to disclose his status, but the Court provided no direction for specific sexual activity beyond that.
Sean Strub, a veteran HIV/AIDS advocate activist and executive director of the Sero Project, tells A&U he’s not surprised by the report’s findings, because he sees the same racial bias in the U.S.
“The media coverage is a reflection of ignorance in the broader society about HIV and transmission risks, and the media coverage has been very stigmatizing. Of course there are responsible journalists but overall [the coverage] is awful, especially the TV and cable coverage.”
Strub adds that inaccurate and racially-biased coverage is problematic because mainstream media is a major driver of stigma and discrimination against people with HIV as well as racial minorities and immigrant communities.
A call for newsroom reform
The report offers recommendations to newspapers and media outlets for improving coverage of HIV criminalization:
• Treat HIV non-disclosure as a health issue, not simply a crime story. Assign stories to health editors, not crime beat reporters.
• Avoid using mug shots in stories, because they reinforce the belief that people with HIV are criminals.
• Expunge story descriptions that are inherently racist or that demonize the defendant.
• Base coverage on HIV transmission on current scientific research. Point out the negligible risk of transmitting HIV when people living with HIV have an undetectable viral load.
• Reach out to AIDS service organizations, people living with HIV and HIV advocates for their perspectives on each story.
• Investigate why Canadians with HIV are charged with aggravated sexual assault in non-disclosure incidents even when no HIV transmission has occurred.
Larry Buhl writes the Hep Talk column for A&U.