The scientific politics of HIV/AIDS : a media perspective

Malan, Martha S. (2003-03)

Thesis (MPhil)--Stellenbosch University, 2003.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: When South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, began doubting that HfV was the cause of AIDS in the late nineties, the debate he introduced in his country was not new; it had raged in the United States as far back as a decade ago. But, even prior to that, there had been numerous controversies pertaining to the discovery of the Ill-virus. This thesis argues that those contentions created such a heated atmosphere that the causal debates that were to follow, however incredible they were, were largely unavoidable. In its coverage of the epidemic, the media were immersed in its own politics. During the early eighties, the gay newspapers in the US felt a personal responsibility to find the cause of a disease that was rapidly killing many of its readers. But, in the process, the often promoted unscientific and dangerous approaches. By the time the AIDS dissident debate had unraveled in the US, the gay media was so suspicious of the anti-gay Reagan government that they frequently advanced dissident arguments. The mainstream and scientific media, on the other hand, were perceived as rigidly supporting government institutions, excluding critical voices. When the dissident debate reached South Africa ten years later, the South African media was completely unprepared. Most journalists had never heard of AIDS dissidents; some had not even heard of HfV or the anti-AIDS drug AZT, that the President had labeled toxic. Begin a new democracy, with a history of white oppression, the black and white media differed immensely on how to cover 'the President's debate'. Criticism of the newly elected ANC government's arguments were often branded racist and unpatriotic, with journalists suffering regular intimidation at the hands of state officials and governmentaligned editors. This thesis examines the development of the politics surrounding the science of AIDS, from the discovery of'HfV up until Thabo Mbeki's controversial contentions. To an equal extent, it looks at the news media's coverage of the process, focusing on the approaches to the debate of various media outlets and individual journalists. It also raises ethical issues, particularly in South Africa, that emerged during one of the most widely reported debates in the country's history. It in no way attempts to provide a quantitative analysis of media coverage and, in the case of the US media, draws heavily on analytical studies conducted at the time. NOTE: In the analysis of the South African media's coverage of the AIDS dissident debate in Part Three: B, issues pertaining to the country's public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), were not discussed The reason was that the author was the Corporation's Health Correspondent at the time, and therefore too closely involved in the institution in order to provide an objective perspective.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Toe Suid-Afrika se president, Thabo Mbeki, in die laat jare negentig begin het om die oorsaak van VIGS in twyfel te trek, was die debat wat hy in sy land ingelei het, nie nuut nie; dit reeds 'n dekade tevore in die VSA gewoed. Maar, selfs voor daardie debat, was daar 'n hewige omstredenheid wat met die ontdekking van die MI-virus verband gehou het. Hierdie tesis argumenteer dat daardie omstredenheid so 'n driftige atmosfeer geskep het, dat die debat oor die oorsaak van VIGS wat sou volg, hoe ongeloofwaardig ook al, grootliks onvermydelik was. Met die dekking van die epidemie was die media in hul eie politiek gedompel. Tydens die vroeë jare tagtig het gay-koerante in die VSA 'n persoonlike verantwoordelikheid gevoel om die oorsaak te vind van 'n siekte wat baie van hulle lesers vinnig laat sterfhet. Maar, in die proses het hulle dikwels onwetenskaplike en gevaarlike benaderings bevorder. Teen die tyd dat die 'oorsaak-debat' in die VSA begin posvat het, was gay-koerante so agterdogtig oor die anti-gay Reagan-regering dat hulle dikwels 'afvallige' argumente aangemoedig het. Die hoofstroommedia en wetenskaplike joernale is aan die ander kant weer gesien as rigiede ondersteuners van regeringsorganisasies, wat kritiese stemme wou stilmaak. Toe die 'oorsaak-debat' Suid-Afrika tien jaar later bereik het, het dit die plaaslike media geheel en alonkant betrap. Die meeste joernaliste het toe nog nooit van 'VIGS-afvalliges' gehoor nie; party nie eens van MIV of die teenvigsmiddel AZT, wat die president as giftig geëtiketteer het nie. Daarby was die land 'n jong demokrasie met 'n geskiedenis van wit onderdrukking, wat meegebring het dat wit en swart media-instansies grotendeels verskil het oor hoe die 'president se debat' gedek moes word. Kritiek teen die nuut verkose ANC-regering se argumente is dikwels as rassisties of onpatrioties afgemaak, en regeringsamptenare of regeringsgesinde redakteurs het gereeld probeer om joernaliste te intimideer. Hierdie proefskrif ondersoek die ontwikkeling van die politiek rondom die wetenskap van VIGS, van die ontdekking van MIV tot en met Thabo Mbeki se omstrede argumente. Dit kyk ook na die nuusdekking van die proses, deur op die benaderings van verskeie media-instansies asook individuele joernalistse te fokus. Dit bespreek ook etiese kwessies wat tydens nuusdekking na vore gekom het, veral in Suid-Afrika, waar hierdie debat van die wydste nuusdekking óóit in die geskiedenis van die land geniet het. Dit poog geensins om 'n kwantitatiewe analise van mediadekking te verskaf nie, en waar die Amerikaanse media beskou word, word daar sterk gesteun op analitiese studies wat tydens die duur van die debat uitgevoer is. NOTA: In die analise van die Suid-Afrikaanse media se dekking van die 'oorsaak-debat' in Deel 3:B word kwessies wat met die nuusdekking van die land se openbare uitsaaier, die Suid-Afrikaanse Uitsaaikorporasie (SA UK), verband hou, nie bespreek nie. Die rede is dat die outeur die korporasie se gesondheidskorrespondent was, en was daarom te nou verbind aan die korporasie om 'n objektiewe perspektiefte verseker.

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