by Chuck Colbert
The first diagnosed case of Ebola in the U.S. — Thomas Eric Duncan of Dallas, Texas — presented local LGBT media with an opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between that disease and HIV/AIDS.
As Tammye Nash, managing editor of Dallas Voice, explained in email correspondence: “We wanted to find an angle that was uniquely ours to write about the situation, and the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became — a deadly blood-borne virus that apparently originated in Africa, creating hysteria with talks of quarantines, etc., and creating irrational animus against a whole community of people. It was HIV deja-vu.”
Accordingly, Dallas Voice published a 2,400 word piece on October 10, “From 1981 to 2014: The virus is different, but the fear is the same.” The reporting was a team effort with staff writers David Taffet and James Russell, along with managing editor Nash contributing to the effort.
|Graphic by Dallas Voice Art Director Kevin Thomas|
Nash also credited Dallas Voice art director Kevin Thomas. “I told him what copy I wanted and drew a very basic idea of how I wanted the AIDS 1981/Ebola 2014 headline to look,” she said. “He took that and created a very powerful cover image and then laid out the inside pages in a way that made a ton of information look interesting and readable.
“Our whole purpose was to report on Ebola as sanely and as responsibly as we possibly could,” said Nash. “We wanted to give people the facts — not downplay the dangers, but at the same time not sensationalize it. We wanted people to have accurate information they needed to be safe and make rational decisions. And we also wanted to remind people in our community that we wanted people to be rational about HIV/AIDS and so we needed to be rational about Ebola. We knew it was a big story simply in terms of the amount of information and research and interviews involved. And we decided that to do it justice, we would all work on it together.”
Sure enough, the Dallas Voice piece took aim at hysteria and the role of the media:
“In the days since news first broke that a man in Dallas had been diagnosed with Ebola, the hysteria in news coverage has been evident. ‘Good Morning America’ began a broadcast with the declaration, ‘The city of Dallas is in a panic.’ Reporters at a press conference by Dallas city and county officials obsessed what Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zach Thompson wore when he went into the apartment where Duncan — who died Wednesday — was staying when he fell ill, and why. County Judge Clay Jenkins didn’t wear a protective hazmat suit when he drove Duncan’s family members to a new location to wait out a 22-day period of isolation to make sure they haven’t been infected.
“Reporters at that press conference asked questions intended to feed the hysteria rather than ascertain — and share — actual facts. In their news stories and broadcasts, they left out facts and focused on speculation and hyperbole.
“Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings noted angrily that members of the media have offered to pay other residents of the apartment complex where Duncan’s family lived, asking that reporters be allowed to move into those neighboring apartments in an effort to get as close to the family as possible before the family was moved to an undisclosed location for their own safety. The city of Dallas, in fact, issued a press statement asking the news media to back off because their overly aggressive tactics were beginning to alarm and frighten residents of the area.”
Dallas Voice reporting also recalled the hysteria surrounding HIV/AIDS in the early years of the epidemic:
“The fear and the misinformation, fed by hyped up coverage by the media on ‘the gay plague’ and a ‘killer blood’ supply, began to spread even faster than AIDS. Police and paramedics wore rubber gloves when they interacted with someone in a ‘high risk group’ for AIDS. There was talk of quarantines, and even doctors and nurses refused to treat AIDS patients for fear they would contract the disease themselves.
“Even after scientists in France in 1983 and in the U.S. in 1984 discovered the virus that causes AIDS — the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, which originated in Africa — the epidemic of fear continued. That fear, fueled by bigotry, misinformation and willful ignorance, in turn fueled the spread of AIDS. Because, as some people went to extraordinary lengths to avoid people and situations they thought would put them at risk of contracting AIDS, their ignorance led them to stumble blissfully and blindly into situations where they really were at risk.”
At the same time, Dallas Voice explored the similarities between public reaction to and media coverage of the two diseases, the newspaper provided accurate information on Ebola’s symptoms and infection:
“AIDS Arms Executive Director John Carlo said he sees a link between the public and media response to HIV in the 1980s and 1990s and media response to Ebola today, and he said treatment of Ebola owes quite a bit to AIDS research.
‘“HIV expanded our knowledge on viruses,’ he said. ‘That research taught us how the immune system works. We learned how viruses attach to cells.’ He also noted that the test used to do an HIV viral load count is the same technology used to test for Ebola.
“Carlo said people who live in the neighborhood where Duncan stayed are being told by their employers to stay home from work, even if they had no contact with Duncan and don’t live in that apartment complex. And he noted that after Jenkins drove Duncan’s family to a new location without wearing protective gear, people have been canceling speaking engagements they had previously arranged with the county judge. ‘We can’t overcome the fears with the science,’ Carlo said.”
No other LGBT media outlet took as comprehensive a look at Ebola and HIV/AIDS, their similarities and differences, as Dallas Voice.
However, Tyler Curry, writing in The Advocate, noted one way Ebola and AIDS are very much alike. “Today, virtually all of the coverage on Ebola is about the situation in America, not the massive problem abroad,” he wrote. “To date, roughly almost 5,000 people have died from Ebola, but the victims were from the wrong country and were the wrong skin color for people to think it had anything to do with them. Exchange wrong skin color for the wrong sexuality, and it’s the same problem in a different package.”
The Washington Blade ran an op-ed that compared the HIV/AIDS epidemic to Ebola and mentioned how prejudice was once again winning against accurate information. “Perpetuating racism and homophobia at the expense of listening to medical science can cause the public to engage in behaviors that perpetuate the spread of disease,” wrote Jimmie Luthuli.
And Gay City News ran a piece by Duncan Osborne that reported on leading AIDS activists’ opposition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s quarantine orders for anyone returning from West Africa after having close contact there with someone who has Ebola.