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New Study Shows Racial Bias in Media Coverage of HIV


A Canadian study has found evidence of racial bias in how newspapers report on HIV-related crimes. 

Researchers in Canada have found rampant racial bias in the North American country's coverage of HIV nondisclosure crimes. And in the United States, activists say that same bias threatens efforts to reduce stigma and infection rates in communities of color, especially black and African communities.

Despite comprising fewer cases, racial minorities charged under HIV nondisclosure criminalization laws in Canada represent a majority of the newspaper coverage, sending an inaccurate message about black communities.

"The news offers a popular discourse or stock of knowledge that tells the public that people living with HIV recklessly transmit HIV to their sex partners and that most of the folks who do that are black men living with HIV, despite the fact that most of the defendants in these cases are white," study coauthor Eric Mykhalovskiy tells The Advocate. "In the end, I think these stories contribute to a culture of fear about HIV, and of people living with HIV, and black immigrants living with HIV in particular."

The study, released this month, evaluated more than 1600 Canadian newspaper articles. The authors found that more than two-thirds of these stories focused on nonwhite defendants, despite the reality that more white defendants were charged. In this study, the cases involved heterosexual male defendants, but prosecution for these crimes can happen regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The study also found stereotypical language used to describe black defendants in nondisclosure cases, and an overemphasis on their race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. And even removing these factors, the media paints an overall portrait of HIV-positive people charged with these crimes as "morally reprehensible" and "deceitful sexual predators," says Mykhalovskiy.

In Canada, persons living with HIV must notify their partner before sexual activity if they are aware of their status and they do not use condoms, regardless of their viral load -- the amount of HIV in a milliliter of blood.

If condoms are used, and their viral load is above a certain level, the person living with HIV must also disclose. The requirement to reveal HIV status can vary depending on the type of sexual activity -- vaginal, oral, anal or otherwise -- and activities like kissing do not require any disclosure due to minimal risk.

Unlike in the U.S., Canadian law is federal. Persons found to have not disclosed their HIV status, according to the country's criminal law, are subject to aggravated sexual assault charges. The U.S. and Canada combined account for the global majority of nondisclosure cases and convictions, according to data collected by Global Network of People Living With HIV.

In the U.S., examples of media bias against defendants of color are well-documented, from the lack of a mugshot in the case of Brock Turner, to the reporting of criminal histories of black victims of violence.

For instance, there's the case of Michael Johnson, a college student convicted of exposing and attempting to expose five people to HIV. Many media outlets reported on his screen name of "Tyler Mandingo," and used it and his shirtless pics to portray him as an oversexed man who "recklessly infected" people, a gross and overt signification of the hyper sexualization and violent, criminalistic portrayal of black men. A Missouri judge sentenced him to concurrent sentences of 30 and 30.5 years, with an appeal pending.

At least 39 states have charged and/or convicted people living with HIV since laws were enacted in the early '90s, according to datacompiled by the HIV Center for Law and Policy. Some states have specific laws about HIV nondisclosure, and others use statutes such as assault, homicide, and even terrorism.

Even spitting on someone can result in charges if someone is HIV-positive, despite no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through saliva. But activists say these laws do nothing to help stop new HIV infections -- in fact, they may actually do the opposite.

"Few things thwart us as much as these ridiculous criminalization laws, which are based on and supported by ignorance about HIV and where we are today," Gary Daffin, the executive director of Multicultural AIDS Coalition, Inc., tells The Advocate via phone. He says these laws threaten "how close we are, even though we still have a ways to go, to actually being in a position of ending the epidemic."

Activists like Daffin say these laws are remnants of an era where little information about HIV was available, death was inevitable, and fear was rampant. Today, they may contribute to an increase in HIV infections. They also hinder education, prevention, and treatment efforts, especially for men who have sex with men in communities of color.

"The more negative images people see of black gay men being treated as pariahs by society, the less likely they are to feel positive about themselves, and the less likely they are to worry about or take care of their own health," says Daffin, whose organization is the first in New England to focus on prevention and treatment in minority LGBT communities, according to its website.

"That [stigma] has a chilling effect on people's willingness to talk about HIV, people's willingness to learn about their own HIV status, and people's sense of self-worth as a black gay man in America," he adds.

Daffin says that these laws present a dilemma for service providers, who want to encourage those who are HIV-positive to seek care and and help those who don't have HIV to remain negative, get tested regularly, and take preventative measures, such as condoms or PrEP.

"There just seems to be no rationale, no public health benefit to these laws that either prevent people from knowing their HIV status or disclosing it," says Daffin. "There seems to be no benefit at all."

There is currently a bill that seeks to evaluate these laws in the U.S. called the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, which California lawmaker Barbara Lee introduced in 2015. In addition, advocates in many states are working with lawmakers to evaluate, modify, or repeal HIV nondisclosure laws and reduce the stigma and misinformation around HIV transmission. The Sero Project, an advocacy group working to repeal nondisclosure laws, released a video this week to bring new visibility to the issue.

However, as the U.S. prepares for a new administration and the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who at present has detailed no plans as to how he will tackle HIV both nationally and internationally, the future of these efforts is up for debate.

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