Proximity and Power Factors in Western Coverage of the Sub-Saharan AIDS Crisis

By Swain, Kristen Alley | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Proximity and Power Factors in Western Coverage of the Sub-Saharan AIDS Crisis


Swain, Kristen Alley, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This content analysis explores the relationship between proximity/ power status factors and news coverage of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa in the elite press of the United States and Britain. Coverage from six publications-Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Economist, New York Times, and London Times-was compared with reported AIDS incidence in the hardest-hit African countries over two decades. AIDS coverage was related to year of publication, country of origin, and former colony status. Strongest predictors of coverage included military spending, scientific research, GDP,GNP,population, government type, and number of highways. Proximity and power status factors may mediate the flow of capital (information, money, and goods) between dominant and dependent nations.

Two decades have passed since the first clinical evidence of AIDS was reported. Although AIDS continues to be the most devastating disease in human history, many journalists remain unaware of the scope of the pandemic in the hardest-hit region, sub-Saharan Africa.1 This study examines geographic and cultural proximity factors and power status factors in sub-Saharan AIDS coverage in the elite press of the United States and Great Britain, comparing it to reported AIDS incidence in the hardest-hit African countries during a twenty-year period.

Worldwide, AIDS has emerged as the fourth-biggest killer; more than 60 million people have been infected.2 By 2005, the death toll is expected to double and then double again.3 In sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is the leading cause of death and is exacerbating the instability and economic collapse there. In 2000, AIDS caused the average life expectancy there to drop from 62 years to 47 years. By 2010, it is expected to drop to 30 years of age, and AIDS is expected to kill more people in sub-Saharan Africa than all wars of the twentieth century combined.4

While sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a tenth of the global population, it carries the burden of more than 80% of AIDS deaths worldwide. The total number living with HIV/AIDS is 28.1 million; one in four people is infected.5 In some areas, adults are 125 times more likely to get AIDS than in the United States, though 90% are unaware they are infected.6 More than 12 million children lost a parent to the epidemic by the end of 2000; many orphans are forced into crime, sex, and drug operations, which further fuel the spread of HIV infection.7

Broader Patterns of International News

The world system of elite communications, as represented by the "prestige press," speaks for third-world nations and to the elites of other nations.8 U.S. newspapers typically devote relatively little space to foreign news9 and even less to developing countries,10 even though gatekeepers typically consider foreign disputes and stories highlighting public concerns or fears to be more newsworthy than other topics.1"

U.S. coverage of Africa tends to oversimplify issues, legitimize U.S. foreign policy, and reinforce stereotypical views of the continent as being backward or unable to self-govern.12 Western portrayals of Africa often focus on sensational news, political upheaval, pestilence, natural disasters, and famine,13 while minimizing or ignoring positive breakthroughs.14 The dominant image is a wasting region fraught with political instability, economic decay and corruption, and human-rights abuses.

Western news organizations tend to ignore Africa because they do not consider it a viable region for newsworthy material.15 Reporters often are criticized for failing to provide a social, political, or economic context for African events.16 Scant coverage and distorted portrayals of sub-Saharan Africa have continued in recent years, partly because of journalists' failure to explain the historical problems that led to Africa's situation and to provide objective analysis of foreign policy.l7 Although U.S. coverage of Africa has been more strongly tied to economic issues than to political issues, it has reflected dominant ideological conceptions of "we vs.

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Proximity and Power Factors in Western Coverage of the Sub-Saharan AIDS Crisis
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