News coverage of HIV/AIDS started in 1981. Still relatively unknown, reports described a “new and mysterious illness” (Cullen). Not until 1983 was the disease identified as human human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which results in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) (Cullen).
In the New York Times‘ first report on the disease, Lawrence Altman describes “a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer,” diagnosed in homosexual men. He further explains that the doctors made diagnoses mostly in New York City and San Francisco, and they were alerting other doctors who treat “large numbers of homosexual men” of the problem (Altman).
This article overwhelmingly suggests that the “cancer” is a homosexual problem. This was common in most early (1980s) coverage. Most stories implied that the disease was “restricted to gays” (Cullen). The metaphor of a “gay plague” emerged as a result.This focus on gay men and the disease “narrowed the focus of reporting” (Weeks qtd. in Cullen).
In Doctoring the Media: The Reporting of Health and Medicine, Anne Karpf suggested that the “gay plague” metaphor depicted HIV/AIDS as a contagious disease that helped “fuel fear and stigma among the public,” suggesting that “both homosexuality and homosexuals were the cause of HIV/AIDS” (Cullen).
The main image shown of a person inflicted with the disease was a male homosexual who contracted the disease through sexual contact, even through the early 1990s (Cullen). Along with the fear of a “gay plague,” was a fear of casual transmission (Swain), e.g. shaking hands or kissing.
According to Shilts, the U.S. news media “was especially skittish about stories that involved gay sexuality. Newspapers and television largely avoided discussion of the disease until the death toll was too high” (qtd. in Cullen). But coverage expanded with the fear of infection in heterosexuals (Cullen).
A study of over 9,000 articles about HIV/AIDS from 1981 – 2002 showed news coverage of the disease “was dominated by the initial CDC reports of ‘gay pneumonia,'” with 83 percent of stories in 1981 and 50 percent in 1982 (Brodie et al.). The study also showed that in 1981, gay men represented 100 percent of the inflicted population shown in news coverage; the percentage dropped to 38 percent in 1982 and 22 percent in 1984 (Brodie et al.).
Media increased coverage of heterosexuals inflicted with HIV/AIDS towards the end of the 80s. And in 1991, LA Lakers player Magic Johnson, a heterosexual and married man, announced he was inflicted with HIV and immediately retired from the team.