Thursday, October 25, 2007

AIDS in Africa: Context, please

Two issues have stood out above others in my storied career as a press critic. One, I’ve called for more coverage of shark attacks, a wish the fourth estate is currently fulfilling. Second, I’ve called for providing readers more with context – more background information so they can better understand how an issue truly affects others. This is especially important for international stories, where readers may not have everyday understanding of the problems facing, say, Africans.

Here’s an example:

On the Oprah Winfrey show, Bono explains some of the bad news facing the continent: “Currently, 28 million Africans are infected HIV; approximately 1.5 million children.”

In a perfect world, Oprah would then whip out her laptop and pull up this website, and say to Bono: “Well, it says here that more than 922 million people live in Africa. That would be” – tapping on a calculator – “about three percent.”

Oprah would then look solemnly at the camera: “Three percent of Africans have AIDS. It’s a tragedy, a human tragedy. But the way you keep going on, Bono, you’d think that four out of five Africans were lying in huts waiting to die.”

This didn’t happen, of course. Oprah Winfrey is not in the business of fighting with too many guests. She's an entertainer. She is not responsible for vetting much of the information reported on her show.

But what can we say of our news organizations?

A recent New York Times story reported that according to a poll, 42 percent of Americans think that AIDS is the world’s most prolific killer of children under five. However, the disease is only responsible for three percent of the nearly 10 million deaths to children every year.

Also, nearly one in five of those polled felt malaria was the biggest killer. But the mosquito-born illness kills about 8 percent of children under five.

To the story:

The reasons for this misapprehension are varied, but they most likely include health advocates' recent success in focusing politicians and news organizations on the undeniably horrific toll from AIDS and malaria.

''It's based on what's in the news,'' said Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council, an organization of health professionals, nonprofit groups and other institutions. ''And it's a vicious cycle. The things that get reported on are the things that people believe are important.''

Health advocates’ recent success focusing news organizations? Apparently, the New York Times takes no responsibility for these misconceptions. In fact, the story is placed under the following headline:

In U.S. Poll, Most Fail a Quiz on Global Causes of Child Deaths

Yet, a simple search of “AIDS + Africa” at yielded more than 250 stories (including one in the Home and Garden section) published within the past year. Conversely, a search for the words "diarrhea" + "Africa" landed only 24 hits. By the looks of it, those health professionals working with AIDS must have done a lot of arm twisting.

Yes, Americans may be ignorant about the cause children’s deaths (I know I am). But I’d like to think as journalists we could start looking for blame elsewhere for our readers’ lack of understanding.

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