A Study of Stigma in the Media

By Jonathan P. Higgins

GLAAD Media Consultant and Researcher Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins studied the impact of media coverage on HIV stigma.

Musical artists have historically led the way in raising awareness about HIV and accelerating acceptance of people living with HIV. Pop culture icons like Elton John, Madonna, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Naomi Campbell, Magic Johnson, Paula Abdul as well as the late Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor used their platforms to elevate understanding and compassion.

Unfortunately, stigma, lack of education, and hate speech around HIV/AIDS continues to fuel fear. After Easy-E, the iconic frontman of N.W.A. died in 1995 from HIV-related health complications it became clear that HIV and AIDS impacted everyone- not just white gay men. Forced to address the impact HIV/AIDS has, particularly on the Black community, artists and emcees reckoned with their duty to use the powerful political potency of hip hop to shift mainstream conversations about the pandemic. The 1996 collaborative album America is Dying Slowly centered Black male youth and featured acts such as Common, Wu-Tang Clan, Goodie Mob, Spice 1, Mobb Deep, and De La Soul.
These artists affirmed the influence and power of musicians to shift public opinion and intervene in a global health crisis. 

In July 2021, DaBaby, legally Jonathan Kirk, a new school rapper from Charlotte, North Carolina, reignited conversation about stigma and the spread of misinformation. On stage at the “Rolling Loud” music festival in Miami, Da Baby instructed: “If you didn’t show up today with HIV/AIDS, or any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two to three weeks, then put your cell phone light up.”

The statements only fueled stigma, proving there is still a great amount of work to be done in dismantling fear and misinformation about HIV/AIDS, especially among those with fanbases, platforms and across media at large. Misinformation at this level of influence has serious implications for educating the broader public on the reality that HIV is extremely treatable and does not discriminate based on race, sexuality, or any other demographic information. 

GLAAD and over ten HIV organizations responded to DaBaby in an open letter, noting: “At a time when HIV continues to disproportionately impact Black Americans and queer and transgender people of color, a dialogue is critical. We must address the miseducation about HIV, expressed in your comments, and the impact it has on various communities.”


Fighting Stigma in the Media

Celebrities can also be forces for change and hope.

Over the last two decades, multiple reports [6] show why stigma continues to grow - specifically because of the decline of coverage. From 1981 to 2002 alone, studies showed that not only had there been a decrease in total media coverage of HIV and AIDS, but a significant drop in the involvement of media figures in HIV/AIDS-related campaigns.

Even while the world was paying close attention to the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s and 1990s, only a few stories were given ample attention. Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis accounted for the highest share of media coverage (3%), with even less coverage given to topics related to HIV and AIDS activism (2%) and vaccine development (2%).

Though the reason for the drop in coverage could be associated with “media fatigue” and how media initially covered topics related to AIDS/HIV, the downward trend may also reflect mainstream media implicit bias against the diseases’ predominantly minority community targets, including LGBTQ people, Black and Brown people, transgender people and intravenous drug users. Media coverage of breakthrough medical and pharmaceutical advances in treatment and prevention has been under-covered over the last 41 years.