Media, Social Movements and the State: Competing Images of HIV/AIDS in South Africa

by Sean Jacobs and Krista Johnson


South Africa’s mainstream print and broadcast media have attained a central role in shaping the discourse about HIV/AIDS as a result of their elevated role in politics after apartheid. Studies of media coverage of HIV/AIDS, however, have shown that despite the horrific impact of AIDS in South Africa, until recently national media coverage (both the extent as well as the content) — with few exceptions — does not reflect the urgency of the crisis. Instead, media coverage focuses primarily on conflicts around HIV/AIDS policy. In this essay we want to explore some of the reasons for this as well as the consequences this has had for AIDS politics. We show that while it is true that often lack of resources, “AIDS fatigue”, racial tensions in newsrooms, and the conflict frame (between the state and AIDS activists) are relevant explanations for the deficient coverage of HIV-AIDS, they don’t tell us much. Instead, we suggest that the concept of framing can provide us with more insight into the why of coverage. Coverage of AIDS disproportionately deflects to the political battles and blunders that have accompanied the disease’s spread. When it does break with that frame, the crisis is often defined very narrowly as a health issue rather than an issue of socio-economic inequality. We suggest that President Mbeki’s framing of the crisis has a censoring effect on the media, while TAC’s complex relation with the media means there is often a disconnect between what TAC is saying and how its demands are being represented in the media, resulting in little effort having been given to reporting and analyzing AIDS’ devastating political economy.

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Sean Jacobs is assistant professor of communication studies and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor since Fall 2005. Previously, he was post-doctoral fellow of the International Center for Advanced Studies at New York University. He holds a PhD in Politics from Birkbeck College at the University of London and a MA in political science from Northwestern University. He has held fellowships at the New School for Social Research and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is a native of Cape Town. His research interests revolve around the relation between democracy, power and inequality. He and Krista Johnson are also co-editing the forthcoming Encyclopedia of South Africa with Lynne Reinner Publishers.

Krista Johnson is Director of the International Relation Program and Assistant Professor at Agnes Scott College. Krista has lived and worked in southern Africa for nearly a decade. She has written extensively on South African democratization and politics, including articles on civil society and democratization in South Africa, and nationalist and post-nationalist politics in southern Africa. Her current research interests focus on HIV/AIDS policy development in South Africa and the international political economy of AIDS and access to anti-retroviral treatment. She and Sean Jacobs are also co-editing the forthcoming Encyclopedia of South Africa with Lynne Reinner Publishers.