Sunday, September 2, 2012

Research Paper on Media Influence

How the media treats the issue of the threat of disease outbreaks and epidemics?

Media coverage of disease epidemics and deadly viruses that endanger humanity at large has always been regulated and controlled by the government, at least to some extent. The reason for such situation is that when a deadly virus threats the well being of the whole country, the government is usually blamed for its inability to handle the situation. In order to control the flow of events and reaction, as well as to prevent large-scale panic among the population, the government influences significantly media coverage, in many cases trying to find a scapegoat in order to avoid being blamed by the country’s citizens. The most vivid example that illustrates this process is situation with the AIDS.


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The development of government policy on AIDS has been the subject of a number of studies which identify several distinctive stages through which policy has evolved (William, 1998). The initial phase of the disease in the early 1980s is characterized as one of official neglect. AIDS was seen as an illness confined to marginal groups in society, drug users, haemophiliacs and, above all, gay men. After a period of indifference and resistance to what was happening to people with AIDS, a growing climate of panic culminated in calls for urgent action to counter what was seen as a growing threat to all of society. The government had to do something in order to avoid for its lack of preventive actions, and the best way they thought suitable was blaming marginal groups of people for disseminating the virus.

In 1986 official reaction to AIDS entered into what has been described as a ‘period of wartime emergency’ (Lorraine, 1991). “We are, to put it bluntly, locked in permanent evolutionary war with the earth’s bacteria and viruses.” (NEWSTATESMAN, 2007) This was the idea that the government realized but did not know how to handle the situation that has arisen. The fight against AIDS became a political priority for the government as a consequence of the growing public fears about contagion. This period witnessed the government take the lead in efforts to educate the public about the disease and prevent the spread of the virus. However, at the same time, the government officials manipulated the media in such a way that allowed them to show that only marginal groups of people were affected by AIDS, and that they were to be blamed for this, rather than the government.

How exactly the government influenced media coverage? Disease has always been a large part of the output of the mass media on health and medical matters. According to content analyses made of the American press, disease constitutes one in four stories on health-related matters (Lorraine, 1991). This reflects the importance attached to the news value of sex and death which have long been staple features of good copy. When AIDS appeared it fitted the bill. But reporting AIDS was also a challenge to the professional competence of health and medical correspondents. Journalists faced the task of covering the new disease under constant pressure from the government authorities that desired to see only certain aspects of it covered.

There is a tendency in discussing the response to AIDS to assume that policy makers acted on or reacted to a particular line from the ‘media’. This view of the conformity in the media’s approach to the disease is reinforced by analysis which utilizes an ideological approach to explain the limitations of media coverage. The media’s coverage of AIDS was substantively structured by institutional homophobia.

The media was being ‘locked into an agenda which blocks out any approach to the subject which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a profoundly homophobic culture’ (Lorraine, 1991).

The focus in the media reporting of AIDS was as a ‘gay plague’ with gay men represented as guilty victims. (William, 1998) It cannot be denied that American deeply homophobic culture provided the context in which all media had to report AIDS. There were many examples of prejudicial and anti-gay stories in the press and on television, particularly in the early phase of the disease. But such an analysis neglects other factors which shaped how the media reported AIDS. It fails to account for the variations which were apparent in the reporting of AIDS between and within different media.

The extent to which divergences in accounts exist within newspapers reflects the nature of editorial control. AIDS was covered by general reporters and freelance writers as well as regular medical or health correspondents. Much of the material on health pages is contributed by freelance writers with varying degrees of experience and knowledge. News stories, however, are the realm of the specialist correspondents. (Lorraine, 1991)

Most newspapers employ specialist medical and health reporters, with the exception of some of the tabloid papers and much of the reporting of AIDS was undertaken by them. Tension developed between these correspondents and general news reporters who began to report more and more about AIDS as the illness became a big, front-page story. Health and medical correspondents were appalled at some of the antics of general reporters or national press stringers (William, 1998). They believed that the general reporters, particularly those on tabloid papers, were responsible for much of the ‘shoddy journalism’, that is, the gay bashing, victim blaming sensational copy. (William, 1998)

“Being skeptical about official statements, although often justified, is not enough.” (WHO Outbreak Communication, 2007) AIDS appealed to sense of social responsibility which was reinforced in 1987 when the government defined the AIDS crisis as similar to a wartime emergency. Prior to this campaign, when AIDS was seen as a disease affecting deviant and marginal groups, reporting was often initiated by specialist correspondents who saw it as ‘our duty and our responsibility’ to cover the disease. (Lorraine, 1991) This often was in the face of the indifference and hostility of news editors.

Many specialist correspondents believed their role was to convince their news organizations of the need to report the disease. In some cases this led some correspondents to play a more active part in the issue of AIDS than the professional ideology of neutrality would anticipate. One tabloid correspondent said that her strategy was to ‘try and get as many experts on the phone to rubbish it. You can’t just sit there rubbishing it yourself, you’re a reporter of other people, but you’re selective about who you’re picking up the phone to get’ (William, 1998).

The issue of government influence on the media coverage in America is especially important, because it may also affect other countries. “The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is currently financing health system strengthening in the developing world, in addition to the already robust support from the Fund for health care infrastructure and human resources.” (Global Aids Alliance, 2007) However, with this financing also comes the official propaganda of the vision of the epidemic imposed by the American authorities.
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