Attacking HIV head-on: a journalist's responsibility

As a professional sports journalist, I don’t focus on coverage of HIV. But I have been giving it more thought lately, especially since today is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. When I hear of HIV, one story comes to mind that not only rocked the sports world, but the African-American community as well.

The year was 1991.

Hard to believe it has been 26 years since that Nov. 7 day when mega basketball superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson, held a press conference to announce that he had tested HIV-positive and would be retiring from the NBA after 12 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic didn’t know it then, but he soon became the poster child for HIV.

Just four sentences in, he made it clear that he had the virus, not AIDS, saying he knew many would want to know. In the minds of many, the disease was an automatic death sentence.

For too many, not much has changed. I, too, never fully understood the complexity of all things surrounding HIV and my community. All that changed last summer, when I attended the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Convention in New Orleans.

Femi Redwood, a member of both NABJ and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, coordinated and moderated a panel at the convention titled “Sisters Suffering in Silence: The HIV Crisis Ignored in Black Women.” The panel delved into how African-Americans, more than any other racial group, are affected by the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

I was there with the support of NLGJA to record the session, but the words sank in. “When I first set out to cover it, I really didn’t know the steps behind it,” said Natay Holmes, a reporter/anchor with WJTV in Jackson, Miss., as she introduced her special report on the high HIV rates in the area. “I actually learned a lot more as I continued to do more research and talk to more people.”

Holmes’ experience as a journalist is very similar to my own. It got me thinking of what more I could do, and I have since gotten a lot more information from NLGJA. When I first set out to learn more about HIV, I didn’t know how to get started. I wanted to increase my understanding of HIV and AIDS, and associated journalism skills, because I knew it would make me a more well-rounded sports reporter.

Holmes’ report, which aired on WJTV, featured how HIV treatment center Open Arms Health Clinic in Jackson became the first clinic in Mississippi to prescribe Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which can be a lifesaving drug.

I was shocked by Holmes’ follow-up point in her special report: “One third of doctors don’t even know about this drug.” This staggering statistic is nationwide, and an opportunity for media across the country to get out and report on what that means for their communities.

I also learned there are so many people who are currently living with HIV and don’t know it.

“When you go to your doctor and get a checkup, sometimes your doctors aren't asking you, to give you an HIV test,” Holmes said. “If you're of age and you’re sexually active, why are you not getting one?”

The panelists also made clear that the underlying issues of lack of health care access and disparities in care play a large part in HIV and AIDS, fertile ground for journalists to see how that’s playing out where they are.

“In Jackson, people aren’t able to just get up and go to the doctor. There aren’t many health-care facilities or clinics,” Holmes said. “They have to travel 50 to 60 miles sometimes to go to the doctor’s.”

The panelists, who included Olivia Ford, contributing editor of thebody.com, also discussed how to reach millennials with information. In my opinion, a true force can be created through the use of social campaigns and hashtags to continue the fight against HIV while building engagement.

As I sit here writing this, my mind is fluttering with ideas. That includes social media campaigns using hashtags focused on PrEP or Act Against AIDS awareness campaigns from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They could include short call-to-action videos and infographics on nearby HIV testing locations. I want HIV information to be just a click away from those who want to learn more. It might also include  a future story I will pitch to my sports editor about health care coverage options.

I write this as a daughter, friend, sister, journalist, African-American and a woman. When I look in the mirror, I see a woman of color, not much different than those black and brown faces who are living with HIV. When I look deeper, I also see my obligation and ask you to do the same.

Let’s get and stay educated about HIV and AIDS, and how to better report on the people affected. Let’s rise to Holmes’ challenge:

“As a journalist you just have to figure out the right way to tell the stories and it will make a difference. It will make an impact within your community.”

Finding resources for coverage

NLGJA — The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, has a variety of resources to assist journalists in covering HIV and AIDS. That includes free training presentations around the country, online videos of past training sessions, tip sheets, story ideas, terminology guides, fellowships to assist with news stories and more. To learn more, go to nlgja.org/newways.

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    Kelsey Nelson

    Kelsey Nicole Nelson is a freelance sports reporter/anchor, broadcast journalist, public relations/marketing specialist and event host out of the Greater Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area.

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