Washington Post Spins CDC AIDS Blunder

What would you call it when a government agency discovers that a major epidemic is spreading 40 percent faster than it previously believed? 

For The Washington Post, it's a victory for AIDS prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control announced August 2 at a conference in Mexico City that America's annual HIV infection rate is 40 percent higher than previously reported, 56,300 new cases each year compared to 40,000. 

As an illustration of media bias, compare the coverage of the two major papers in the nation's capital.   The Washington Times reported the story with a straightforward headline: “CDC underestimated new HIV cases in U.S.”  The Post?  "AIDS Prevention Having an Effect."

In his August 3 article, Post staff writer David Brown used the first five paragraphs to champion AIDS prevention.   He buried the major finding about the number of cases in the sixth paragraph. He wrote in the second paragraph:

Even though the number of Americans living with HIV has risen by more than a quarter-million people since 1998 – largely because of life-extending antiretroviral drugs – the number of new cases each year has declined slightly over that period.  That suggests that a person's likelihood of transmitting the virus to someone else is substantially lower than it was a decade ago.

Later in the article Brown noted that “the CDC's budget for AIDS prevention in 2006 was only 5 percent higher that it was in 1990.”

Major media's coverage of the announcement consistently sounded the trumpet for more government funding of AIDS prevention.

CBS reporter Priya David noted during the August 2 broadcast of Evening News that “revised numbers may not mean more federal dollars for those living with AIDS” and that “the CDC's HIV funding is about $650 million for 2008, the same as about a decade ago.”

Robert Bazell, NBC's chief science correspondent mentioned “many experts say these numbers show the country needs to put a lot more effort into preventing new infections.”

Does “effort” mean “money?”

The New York Times adopted a similar tone in its August 3 article.  Reporter Lawrence K. Altman quoted Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) as saying “Since fiscal year 2002, when adjusted for inflation, CDC's prevention budget has actually shrunk by 19 percent.  The president has recently requested decreases in funding for HIV prevention at CDC.” 

USA Today mentioned on August 4 that “the administration's AIDS prevention budget for the USA has hovered at $750 million for the past two years, with a proposed cut of $1 million next year.” 

The Associated Press however, proved that reporting could just state facts and not advocate.  The August 3 article briefly noted that new findings “likely will refocus U.S. attention from the effect of AIDS overseas to what the disease is doing to this country” but did not get into numbers or comparison of past funding allocations. 

ABC's David Muir also simply reported the findings of the report and did not mention funding on August 2. 

However, it may not be more funding that the CDC needs but a better approach in its prevention education efforts.  The Post reported that nearly half of the CDC's HIV prevention budget is directed toward African-Americans, who in 2006, accounted for 45 percent of new infections.  But men who engage in sex with other men made up 53 percent of new cases in 2006.  Kevin Fenton, who directs HIV prevention efforts at the CDC, told the Post this indicates “prevention campaigns have 'not reached all those who need it.” 

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center