Media Analysis On Agema Statements

By Todd Heywood

The latest controversy involving Dave Agema was treated like a virtual he said/they said tennis match, but the veracity of Agema's claims were mentioned by only one writer - aside from Between The Lines - Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press.

And Agema's claims were not accurate or true. He claimed that gay men were dying young, that they wanted free medical care as a result, that they had participated in insurance fraud to achieve that goal through American Airlines and that American Airlines had been forced by San Francisco to offer the benefits.

The Michigan Department of Community Health said Agema's claims on HIV did not reflect Michigan's reality and hindered public health activities. American Airlines called his claims "baseless" and BTL proved that a federal court in 1998 exempted airlines from the domestic partner law in San Francisco. Months later, American announced it would offer the benefits as a business decision.

"As the Agema case illustrates, one of the biggest challenges facing modern American journalism is finding the time, resources and will to go beyond episodic reporting of the statements made by sources," says Bonnie Bucqueroux, a journalism professor at Michigan State University. "If an environmental group says Company X is polluting the river, good reporting requires doing more than simply reporting the statements made by the two sides. In addition to gathering those quotes, a good reporter goes to the river and takes a look. The reporter should also pursue finding other credible sources, in this case government agencies that monitor our waters. If it's a big enough story, good reporting requires urging your sources to suggest other folks to interview."

Later in her email to BTL, Bucqueroux added, "Traditional news outlets today tend to cover the tennis match, as both sides volley with sound bites, outsourcing their function as fact-checkers and analysts to outside groups like Politifacts. The problem, of course, is that state and local reporting rarely inspires or supports this independent function, and we now need a system to fact-check the fact-checkers."

One solution she proposed was activist organizations directly impacted, doing the research and providing the facts to reporters. But she wondered if those organizations had the capacity to do so.

BTL contacted the heads of several AIDS Service Organizations and asked if any news outlets had reached out to them in covering the Agema story. All of them said there had been no contact from the media.

Asked why they had not put out their own press releases out and aggressively attempt to address the misinformation pushed by Agema, all the organizations concurred that they did not have the capacity, financially, to pay an employee to monitor the news and respond to erroneous reports about the epidemic.

"From LAAN's vantage point, and perhaps for all of us, we are struggling to define our position in the new HIV landscape with the new Affordable Care Act and the uncertainties relative to the Ryan White Care Act," wrote Jake Distel, executive director of the Lansing Area AIDS Network.

For Kyle Murphy, assistant director for communications at the National Minority AIDS Council, ASOs have an obligation to try to reach out when the epidemic is making news.

And the Agema case offers a perfect opportunity for the community to respond, he said.

"At their core, Agema's comments were both offensive and absurd. But they do provide an opportunity to educate the public. First, for those who have access to health care, HIV has become a manageable, chronic condition," Murphy wrote in an email to BTL. "Average life expectancies for people on treatment are nearly equivalent to those of HIV-negative individuals. Second, homophobia and stigma play a significant role in perpetuating the spread of HIV. In states that have passed marriage equality, we have actually seen a drop in new HIV infections. We seek recognition of our relationships, because as humans and citizens, we deserve to be treated equally."

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