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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.

Media lawyer and Ryerson School of Journalism adjunct professor Brian MacLeod Rogers. (Paul Lawrence courtesy Ryerson School of Journalism)

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

The European Court of Justice’s 2014 ruling on the “right to be forgotten” (RTBF) doesn’t just affect search engines, it also has implications for journalists, said Ryerson University School of Journalism adjunct professor and media lawyer Brian MacLeod Rogers.

In 2014, the court ruled that individuals have the right to ask search engines, such as Google, to remove links with personal information if the details are inaccurate or no longer relevant. Search engines have to make case-by-case assessments of requests under EU law.

The decision, Rogers said in an interview, also had implications for reporters in European newsrooms. Journalists there, he explained, have reason to fear that the right could “impact free expression and the ability of news organizations to publish” and to keep information published as a complete historical record.

The ruling has not yet affected Canadian journalists directly, Rogers said. But, he added: “I think that it certainly focuses on an issue that has been a subject of great concern and debate, and that is unpublishing generally.”

Unpublishing is just one of the potential implications of the RTBF idea that is explored by Rogers and Ryerson University School of Journalism professor Ivor Shapiro in a recent paper published in Digital Journalism. The researchers define unpublishing as “retrospective redaction of error-free news reports.”

Researcher and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Ivor Shapiro. (Courtesy Ryerson School of Journalism)

The paper, “How the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Challenges Journalistic Principles,” not only explains the law that now applies in Europe, but also explores how its core ideas might help journalists resolve dilemmas that they face increasingly often.

“We tried to set out some of the legal principles and the ethical principles behind this decision,” Shapiro said, “to make some suggestions to journalists as to how to handle questions of unpublishing and informed consent.”

Although journalists traditionally resist unpublishing, the increased frequency of requests from members of the public for the removal of articles about themselves has journalists reassessing their practices, explains Shapiro and Roger’s report.

Unpublishing requests often come from people who have previously been accused of crimes and want details of these past accusations erased from online history. “Crime reporting is notoriously episodic and often left unfinished in the public record,” the authors observe in their research paper.

“Individuals who’ve been named in those earlier stories are coming up in [Internet searches], and people getting those results don’t see what happened to the charges and the fact that they may have been thrown out,” said Rogers.

Although unpublishing requests aren’t new, they have become much more frequent as web searches become part of daily routine, Rogers and Shapiro wrote. Meanwhile, journalists are slowly changing their practices with the knowledge that the stories they publish will remain on the web—in some form—forever.

Rogers and Shapiro’s paper describes how, in one journalism ethics class co-taught by the two authors, a news reporter said that “he and a colleague had decided to include a video of a criminal act, showing the face of the alleged perpetrator, but decided against including that person’s full name in the written report. Their grounds for doing so: a face on video will not show up in name-based search results.”

If this had been an old-fashioned print story, explained Shapiro, the journalists would probably have just used the alleged perpetrator’s name. “There’s no possible libel case because they have the crime actually captured on video. So from a legal view, it doesn’t matter whether they use his name or not.”

The RTBF issue has also prompted discussions among journalists about informed consent. Just like unpublishing requests, the concept has traditionally been neglected in journalistic practice, the paper says. Today, however, some journalists are doing more to ensure that sources understand how a story’s appearance on the web could potentially harm them.

Journalists who seek informed consent from sources, the authors wrote, show “an attitude of greater consideration toward ordinary citizens” by explaining the long-term implications of publication.

“I’m not saying that every journalist, before talking to a source, needs to get them to sign a waiver indicating their awareness of all the personal consequences of an interview,” said Shapiro. “But I am saying that the discussion around consent needs to take into account the nature of the personal harm that can come to the person and the means by which [we ensure] that the person is aware of the personal harm that can result.”

As for the law in Canada, the right to be forgotten is unlikely to become a fixture here soon, said Rogers—at least not outside Quebec.

Europe has a long-established legal framework for protecting privacy, Rogers explained, as does Quebec. Litigation in this area is governed not by judge-made common law, but by a civil code and a Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which, like the European human-rights convention, explicitly includes the right to privacy and the right to reputation. “And I think that there is, to some extent, a different sensibility about privacy and certainly different judicial reasoning around the issue of privacy,” Rogers said.

In common-law Canada, he added, civil rights complaints fall under provincial jurisdiction, so introducing a right to privacy would require the federal government to work with the provinces.