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By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

April 13, 2018

Ryerson University master of journalism student Michael D’Alimonte (Courtesy of Michael D’Alimonte)

Gay men living with HIV/AIDS were underrepresented and often portrayed in a negative light by Toronto mainstream newspapers covering the early years of the health crisis, according to a new study.

The research paper by Ryerson University master of journalism student Michael D’Alimonte also suggests that the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail were too eager to publish scientifically dubious findings during the early years of the crisis in the 1980s.

“The (research) paper is a lesson on reporting on an emerging health crisis,” said D’Alimonte, whose paper has been accepted for presentation at the Canadian Communication Association meeting this spring. “Reporters can’t just take official sources at their word. They have to question things and reporters need to go into these at-risk groups and make connections to get the insiders perspective rather than taking an outsiders approach and reporting from there.”

D’Alimonte, who is completing his final year in the master of journalism program, compared the AIDS coverage by the two mainstream papers to reporting by The Body Politic, a monthly that billed itself as a “gay liberation newspaper.” He found substantial differences.

The Body Politic, he said, was more more likely to question early research claims that AIDS can be spread by casual contact – a claim that turned out to be false. Gay men living with AIDS were also given a voice in the publication’s coverage more frequently than in mainstream publications.

D’Alimonte’s content analysis also revealed that when AIDS was first recognized as a public health issue, The Body Politic reported more extensively on developments and also played the role of an advocate, adopting a critical perspective on AIDS as a social and public health issue, he said.

D’Alimonte said he decided to investigate news coverage of the early years of the AIDS epidemic after having a partner who was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He became more aware of the stigma faced by people who are HIV-positive, he said, when his partner encountered immigration difficulties moving from the United States to Canada.

“This got me interested in where all of this stigma came from,” D’Alimonte said. “As a queer male, I never learned about any of that stuff in school, so I took it upon myself to learn about the AIDS epidemic and also about that period of time in a Toronto context. Not a lot of people are aware that a lot of the activism surrounding AIDS was centred in Toronto.”

The paper, AIDS Coverage By Three Toronto-Based Print News Publications, examines AIDS coverage by the three news outlets in Toronto from 1981, when it was first reported on, to 1987.

In his analysis, D’Alimonte, 26, investigated the extent to which the newspapers focused on people who were diagnosed with AIDS and were ill rather than stories of healthy HIV-positive individuals. He examined how frequently AIDS stories appeared in the newspapers and the significance of word choice and terminology. Use of the term “plague,” he noted, implied that gay men with AIDS were deserving of their affliction because they were sexually deviant. The study also looked at where AIDS-related stories appeared in the publications and the types of sources quoted.

D’Alimonte said he wanted to see if the Toronto coverage mirrored patterns of early AIDS reporting in the United States, where researchers have divided the coverage into four distinct “eras.” He found that in the initial era from from June 1981, when the first AIDS cases were reported, to April 1983, the Star and the Globe virtually ignored the issue.

The Globe published just one article related to AIDS, a 1981 story titled “Young gays sensitive to rare cancer: study.” The article focused on Kaposi’s sarcoma, the “rare cancer” alluded to in the title, and featured only scientific sources. Individuals with the disease were nowhere in the story. Both the title and the lede of the piece connect this rare cancer to the gay male community, but no real explanation was provided for this link.

The Toronto Star, meanwhile, did not publish its first AIDS-related story until November 1982 when it a piece ran under the headline “Atlanta disease detectives hot on trail of ‘gay plague.’”

“Likening AIDS to a ‘gay plague’ makes those afflicted by the disease (who are mostly homosexuals and drug-users, as the piece points out) seem deserving of their fate,” D’Alimonte wrote in the research paper. “Drug-users and homosexuals, already seen as deviants in the public eye at the time, are being punished by God. That is, at least, what the language used implicitly suggests.”

The two mainstream newspapers may not have felt a sense of urgency to report on AIDS, D’Alimonte said, because their team and audience were outside of the community at risk: “No matter what the circumstance is,” he said, “it is always easy to point fingers. We are born in a way that makes the one group as the ‘other’ when you’re not a part of that community. During this time period, there was a lot of research and early reporting saying that the gay community is the reason why this disease is expanding.”

During the subsequent “Science Era,” from the spring of 1983 until June 1985, American journalists relied on scientific, academic sources in their reporting, and the Canadian newspapers did as well. The Globe and the Star would instantly write about new AIDS-related research, D’Alimonte said, and that occasionally led to the dissemination of misleading information.

The Body Politic, D’Alimonte said in an interview, took more cautious approach: “(Its) writers realized that what they wrote would influence how people thought,” he said, “especially when they are coming from their own community. They knew they shouldn’t just take information and report it out as soon as they got it.”

The publication went beyond simply disseminating information, D’Alimonte said, and worked to offer guidance to its readers, pointing out what information may be accurate, what may be false and where they could find out more.

Following the AIDS-related death of Rock Hudson in 1985, the general population became interested and concerned about AIDS, and both Canadian papers dramatically increased coverage. During the so-called Human Era of news coverage between July 1985 to January 1987, D’Alimonte found that the Globe and the Star did a better job of humanizing the disease, drawing upon people affected within the queer community as well as other at-risk groups as sources.

The Body Politic ceased publication in 1987, the same year AIDS coverage took off in the mainstream media during what is known as the Political Era of coverage. By that point, D’Alimonte said, AIDS became a major news topic – a public health issue the general population wanted to know more about. After publishing just 73 stories in 1986, the Globe and Mail carried 236 AIDS-related stories in 1987. The number of stories in the Star increased to 146 in 1987, up from 56 in 1986

D’Alimonte said he hopes his research paper will inform millennials of what happened during the AIDS epidemic and the legacy of it.

BY: ALLISON RIDGWAY
Staff Reporter

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders.

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders.

When Kamal Al-Solaylee saw a group of Filipina maids enjoying a picnic in a Hong Kong park during their time off work one Sunday afternoon in 2011, the concept for his next book began to form. That idea solidified when, back home and riding the subway in Toronto, he again saw a large group of Filipina workers talking together and realized that both groups, though an ocean apart, shared two things in common: their work and their skin colour.

“I started thinking about the connection between skin colour and work,” explained Al-Solaylee, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. “I decided to try to write a book about skin colour, but it’s not really about skin colour. It’s about where skin colour becomes the gateway into something else.”

Al-Solaylee discussed his latest book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders last week at an RJRC-hosted Q&A session.

Brown explores the complexities and shared experiences of people with brown skin from around the world. Al-Solaylee travelled to 10 countries and four continents over two years to talk with people from the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the United States and Canada about their experiences living as brown-skinned people in the world today. The book examines issues such as immigration, work conditions, economic marginalization, racism, Islamophobia, colourism and self-perception, all the while asking what experiences unite people from vastly different countries, cultures and backgrounds who all share one common trait: their brown skin.

“I wanted to show how similar all of these experiences are,” Al-Solaylee said during the Q&A, “and that’s why it was important for me to go to all of these different countries and try to find out how the same scenario unfolds in different countries.”

He found that brown-skinned people – particularly immigrants – often end up as transient labourers stuck in precarious jobs.

“We have brought in people to do work that we don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “What I find is that there is this mass population of brown people in the service industry, whether they’re in kitchens, supermarkets, driving cabs or cleaning…The one thing that unites all of them is cheap labour”

This is true throughout the world, Al-Solaylee explained. He visited a school in Manila that trains students in housekeeping and the culinary arts so that they can work abroad. He talked with Filipina domestic workers about dealing with racism and segregation in Hong Kong (a country where foreign domestic workers make up five per cent of the population). And he met with foreign construction workers in Qatar, where, on average, one migrant worker per dies per day building the country’s infrastructure.

Al-Solaylee and Saunders discussed how these labour disparities are also found in Canada.

“We bring in a population (of new Canadians) that tend to have university degrees or are professionals, but we end up sacrificing them,” said Saunders, who wrote Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, both of which explore immigration issues in Canada and elsewhere.

“You are what Canadians assume is the default model,” Saunders said to Al-Solaylee, “which is that it’s okay that the people who clean our floors, drive taxis and so on are economically marginalized because our grandparents all did when they were immigrants and everybody slowly rose up the hierarchy. But I worry, with precarious employment, that maybe this is not working the way it used to.”

Al-Solaylee was born in Aden, Yemen and grew up in Cairo and Beirut before pursuing an education and journalism career in the United Kingdom and Canada. He wrote his first book, the award-winning Intolerable, about his decision to leave his family in the Middle East to seek greater freedom and safety as a gay man in the West.

Al-Solaylee said that writing the book was easy compared to the challenge of finding people who would talk to him, particularly in developing countries.

“You arrive somewhere after people have promised to help you and then they disappear, or when you arrive you realize that they aren’t that much help at all,” he said.

He said he ended up relying on NGOs to introduce him to potential interviewees.

“When you meet just one generous person in every destination who is willing to open doors for you, that’s the most important thing,” he explained.

Nonetheless, he still had difficulty finding people in Qatar willing to talk on-record about the country’s treatment of migrant construction workers, and was unable to find any dermatologists in Canada willing to talk about selling skin-lightening creams and treatments.

In addition to recounting the experiences of brown-skinned people from around the globe, Al-Solaylee also tells his own story in Brown, and discusses identity and intersectionality between race and sexuality. His book begins with a memory of himself as a 10-year-old boy in early 1970s Cairo, excited to watch a premier of the British musical Oliver! on TV. But while watching the show, he noticed that the young, white-skinned actor did not look like him, and felt shame over being brown. He noticed that all of the ads and shows on Egyptian television that always used light-skinned actors and began to wish that he, too, had lighter coloured skin.

“I have an awareness of how darker or lighter my skin is, and sometimes it has an impact on my self-confidence, because the lighter it is, the more confident I feel,” Al-Solaylee said. He was not alone in such experiences of colourism. While talking outside to an Indian woman in Trinidad, he noticed that they both gravitated to a table with the largest canopy so that they would stay out of the sun and not become “darker.”

He also discussed his experience feeling invisible as a person of colour in Toronto’s gay community, but he said that finding a Latino gay bar in the city also gave him a new sense of community.

“It was the one place on Church Street where I felt completely at home because there were about 100 brown people around me and I was just one of them,” he explained.

Al-Solaylee said that he was particularly upset over the shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida earlier this month and how the news media identified the victims. The nightclub, Pulse, was having a Latin night, and the majority of the 49 people killed were Latin, Hispanic and black, but the media has not identified this as an attack against people of colour as well as an attack against LGBT people, he said.

Racism, prejudice and “othering” is also an experience that unites people with brown skin, Al-Solaylee said.

“If I was just walking down the street late at night…nobody would know me as a professor or that I wrote a couple of books or any of that stuff,” he noted. “The first thing you would see is the skin colour and the otherness.”