Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Dr. Junko Takeda
Dr. Scott Strickland
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
African History | History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
In 1983, the first year The New York Times wrote more than one story on AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — the newspaper printed 77 articles that included the word “AIDS” and the word “homosexual.” This total reached its peak in 1987, when 314 articles that included the two words were written. In 1990, this total was down to 109, and at the turn of the century in 2000, only 29 articles that mentioned these two words were published.
Conversely, in 1983, only nine Times articles included “AIDS” and “Africa.” In 1987, when articles about the connection between AIDS and homosexuality were at a climax, 175 articles in The New York Times mentioned AIDS and Africa. As the link between AIDS and homosexuals tapered off in 2000, the article total for “AIDS” and “Africa” was at an all-time high of 270.
The objective of this thesis was to answer the question of why this shift in focus occurred. This objective was achieved by analyzing specific New York Times articles that were printed from 1980 until 2000 and by studying the overall history of the AIDS epidemic. As comparison, articles from The San Francisco Chronicle were also examined to see if a similar shift of focus occurred in this paper’s coverage of the AIDS epidemic.
It was determined that the shift in coverage mirrored the disease’s epidemiological shift. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, AIDS’s prevalence transitioned from the United States to Africa, which was greatly influenced by the development of a drug that stalled HIV’s mutation into AIDS. This drug was widely used in the United States, but proved too expensive for common use in Africa.
While the geographical shift of the disease explains — on the surface — the newspapers’ shift of coverage of AIDS, it was discovered that The New York Times’ initial coverage of AIDS’s occurrence in homosexuals set a template of “othering” that the paper followed in its later coverage of the disease’s presence in Africa. In comparison, The San Francisco Chronicle did not follow this template. Instead of bluntly stating the facts of the epidemic’s progression and relying heavily on the official statements of government organizations in its articles, which helped demonize the disease and its patients, The Chronicle took a more anecdotal method of reporting the AIDS epidemic. While the Chronicle’s people-based covered helped stall the development of stereotypes and stigmas surrounding AIDS more so than articles published by The New York Times, both papers failed to put the AIDS epidemic and assumptions that developed about its victims in their historical and cultural context.
A historical and cultural examination of the homophobic and xenophobic tendencies of the American public and its media was completed in Chapter Four of this thesis. These examinations identified the Christian undertones and moral code that have saturated the nation and its governmental decisions since the United States’ inception. Such moral standards were at an all-time high when the AIDS epidemic emerged in the early 1980s at the start of the Culture Wars. These standards appeared in the United States government’s reaction to the epidemic and the news media’s coverage of it.
In conclusion, The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle followed the geographical transition of the disease and reflected the country’s moral beliefs at the time AIDS first appeared. While the mystery surrounding AIDS, the puzzling nature of the disease and the overall Christian code of the United States excused most of the newspapers’ shortcomings in reporting, both papers — by being in existence — have assumed the role of the Fourth Estate. Their duty is to question and criticize both governmental and societal trends and beliefs. In the case of AIDS and the people whose lives it took, The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle failed in this gate-keeping role, and instead helped perpetuate the stereotypes surrounding the epidemic that still plague the nation today.
Zillman, Claire S., "Transition of Blame: The Othering of AIDS from Homosexuals to Africans" (2009). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 487.
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