There is a strong bias against black and immigrant men in Canadian newspaper coverage of HIV nondisclosure trials, according to a new study.
The report is titled Callous, cold, and deliberately duplicitous: Racialization, immigration and the representation of HIV criminalization in Canadian mainstream newspapers. It analyzed 1680 English-language newspaper articles about criminal HIV nondisclosure – where a person living with HIV was criminally charged for not disclosing their status to an uninfected partner.
The study found stories about black and immigrant men were vastly overrepresented in the press over the last 28 years. Though black and immigrant males make up about 20 per cent of the 181 people convicted for this crime in Canada, they account for 69 per cent of the newspaper stories, according to the report.
“What we found is that newspapers really overwhelmingly and I think unjustifiably focused on cases that involved black, immigrant male defendants and what results is a kind of prejudicial coverage of cases that involve black men,” said Eric Mykhalovsky, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at York University. “It’s almost a sort of ‘racial profiling’ of HIV nondisclosure as a crime of black men despite the fact that most of the defendants are in fact white.”
Mykhalovsky and his team also analyzed the individual content contained in the stories associated with many cases. Four specific cases involving African, Caribbean, or American black men living with HIV, garnered nearly half of all the newspaper stories in the study. The immigration status of each defendant and their mugshot figure prominently in the coverage and talks about their “exotic strains” of HIV, making them appear as a foreign originator of the virus.
“At the start it will maybe be something like ‘so-and-so from Uganda,’” he added, “and then it’s ‘Ugandan-born’ and then by the end of it, the person is ‘the Ugandan.’ That’s the sort of coverage with one of the individuals that we looked at. There’s a continual emphasis of the person not being from Canada.”
In one case that garnered nearly a quarter of all the newspaper coverage, former Saskatchewan Roughrider Trevis Smith was repeatedly referred to as a “reckless” and “dangerous,” an “Alabama native” who had “come in and disrupted [perceived] wholesome prairie culture,” Mychalovsky said. Smith was charged with aggravated sexual assault and eventually deported back to the U.S. He did not transmit the virus to the complainants in his case.
In Canada, people living with HIV must disclose their status to partners before engaging in vaginal or anal sex or potentially face the very serious charge of aggravated sexual assault. It carries a maximum life sentence and potential sex offender registration, even if no transmission occurs. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that putting a sexual partner at “significant risk” of HIV exposure is enough to constitute an assault, even if the latest science says that people taking antiretroviral drugs to suppress their viral load to undetectable levels in the blood are virtually uninfectious.
“It’s the same pattern of coverage,” Mykhalovsky said, “the same type of story that’s being told, how this black man is presented as a sort of sexual casanova with a rampant sex drive who is deceiving and tricking women into having sex.”
Valérie Pierre-Pierre, director of the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario, says the report confirms what she and the people living with HIV who she works with have known all along.
“I personally consider this type of coverage to be violent, a type of violence against black communities,” said Pierre-Pierre, who also served on the advisory committee for the study. “People living with HIV, whether they’re black, white, Asian, no matter where they come from or how they identify their race or ethnicity, are people and I think there needs to be a humane approach to how reports or articles are being written about HIV, people who are living with HIV.”
There is a broadening consensus among AIDS service organizations and activists that the law needs to catch up with the science, but both Pierre-Pierre and Mykhalovsky say the coverage continues to focus on the criminality of a very small number of people living with the virus.
“The way articles are being written, you have the nice stories that come around World AIDS Day on December 1, but apart from that they are othered, stigmatized in media portrayal,” said Pierre-Pierre.
The report recommends assigning health reporters to HIV criminalization stories rather than crime reporters and avoiding the use of mug shots, which the report says only further emphasizes the race of the accused. Reporters need to seek out more people living with HIV and AIDS service organizations that have intimate knowledge of the disease.
Pierre-Pierre emphasizes that the vast majority of people living with HIV are well aware of the risks and always engage in conversations with their partners about the latest science about treatment and risk, “because if you’re in treatment, you talk to your medical practitioner, you have conversations, you understand how it works, so you don’t intentionally put people at risk,” she said.
“I think it needs to be covered in such a way that it’s made clear that [nondisclosure] is not the norm and that they are actually outliers, and it’s often more complex than people think.”
But having people talk about how the media should cover a story and what the media can do to change its attitude toward stories are two different things. Desmond Cole, a columnist for the Toronto Star, former CANADALAND COMMONS host, and prominent commentator on racial politics in the city, thinks papers need to work harder at telling more than one type of story about a particular community.
“This is part of the reason why we talk incessantly about diversity in newsrooms,” said Cole. “It’s not just about tokenism. It’s not just about being able to say that one or two of us are there. It’s that we are probably, given our life experiences, more likely to see something like that and start asking questions.”
Editors should also be aware of who they are assigning to stories and, Cole said, if these common cliches appear in stories, then they should assign writers that understand their harm. It comes down to the need to constantly reassess how journalists’ personal biases about race, HIV, or other forms of identity play out in their coverage of stories.
“All the biases that tend to play out in our country on a day-to-day basis are going to play out in the media, so if our country in general is suspicious of newcomers, which we know Canada is, then that’s going to potentially play out in any story involving those folks and that’s just a thing to be mindful of.”