Media actions have consequences for people’s lives. This is especially true in the area of reporting on HIV and AIDS. Stigma and discrimination means that careless reporting could have a serious negative impact on the individual concerned. Media reporting can also perpetuate myths and stereotypes and so contribute to stigma and discrimination. This necessitates the need for specific ethical guidelines for reporting on HIV and AIDS.

These guidelines were developed to provide a standard for ethical reporting, and so complement existing codes of conduct that govern media reporting on HIV and AIDS. They focus on:

  • The rights of people living with HIV and AIDS;
  • Gender and HIV/AIDS;
  • The rights of children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS;
  • Media practitioners’s rights and responsibilities when reporting on HIV/AIDS; and
  • HIV/AIDS and language.

The Guidelines were developed by leading journalists in South Africa who have considerable experience in reporting on HIV and AIDS. The Guidelines are based on their experiences as well as existing literature pertaining to media ethics and reporting on the epidemic.

Appreciation is also due to the AIDS Law Project for its contribution regarding the Constitutional and legislative frameworks that govern media reporting in South Africa.

I. The Rights of People living with HIV/AIDS

The right to privacy and confidentiality is recognised within the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and applies to all persons.


Media reporters should note that:

» The HIV status of an individual is private unless otherwise indicated;
» All individuals have the right to control personal information, even where such information is already contained in public/semi-public documents;
» Children have a right to privacy


The name or photograph of an individual with HIV should not be published without that individual’s expressed informed consent.

Informed consent

To obtain informed consent, journalists, photographers and camerapersons should:

» Clearly identify themselves when requesting to interview or photograph people living with HIV and AIDS;
» State the purpose of the interview/photograph, the context in which these may be utilised and the potential ramifications for the individual, their children and other family members;
» Consider whether the individual person living with HIV and AIDS is a position to provide informed consent.
» Ensure that the person being interviewed has disclosed their status to their partners and families;
» Seek to obtain informed consent in the individual’s home language, where ever possible;
» Remain sensitive to the dangers of implying, or placing a person in a situation that may imply, HIV status; and
» Avoid promises that cannot be upheld. For example that the story will not be used within South Africa.

These guidelines apply even where media work has been facilitated by organisations working in the area of HIV and AIDS.


The right to privacy is not an absolute legal right and exceptions are recognised. Confidentiality can be breached if there is an identifiable risk to an identifiable person. Informed consent may be departed from where issues are considered to be of public interest. These include:

» Detecting and exposing crime;
» Detecting and exposing anti-social conduct;
» Detecting and exposing issues of public health and safety;
» Preventing the public from being mislead; and
» Detecting and exposing hypocrisies and falsehoods on the part of public figures or institutions.

II. Gender and HIV/AIDS

» Women are the individuals most infected and affected by HIV and AIDS, and media should be aware of this gender dimension;
» Gender relations affect every aspect of the epidemic from prevention to transmission, care, support and treatment and this should be reflected in media reporting; and
» Media should also be aware of gender-based assumptions and prejudices and guard against continuing the negative stereotyping.

III. The rights of children infected and affected by HIV

» Children are vulnerable to infection, abuse and to losing their foothold in society. Journalistic activity which touches on the lives and welfare of children should consider this vulnerability;
» Reporting on children should uphold their right to privacy, confidentiality and informed consent as defined above;
» Where possible informed consent should be obtained with the knowledge and consent of the children involved from a responsible adult, guardian or carer.
» Journalists and media organisations should maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct in reporting children’s affairs by:

Striving for excellence in terms of accuracy and sensitivity;
Avoiding programming and publishing images which intrude into the children’s space or disseminating information damaging to them;
Avoiding using stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children;
Considering carefully the consequences of publishing or broadcasting any material concerning children;
Guarding against visually or otherwise identifying children unless it is demonstrably in the public interest;
Ensuring information provided by children is independently verified, and taking special care to ensure this process does not put child informants at risk;
Avoiding the use of sexualised images of children.
IV. The rights and responsibilities of media practitioners reporting on HIV/AIDS

Media practitioners should note that:

» Access to information is constitutionally guaranteed, especially where such information is deemed to be in the public interest;
» Legitimate criticism of a public officer is permissible where this relates to the execution of that officer’s constitutional and public duties;
» Advocacy journalism, where a journalist or media organisation motivates its own views, is a duty and a responsibility especially where the actions of stakeholders are viewed not to be reasonable and objective. Many consider advocacy journalism on HIV and AIDS as relevant today as the advocacy journalism of the 1980’s when reporting on apartheid. However, it is important for journalists to be self-regulating and to guard against twisting the facts.
» Conflict of interests should be declared. Individual journalists should disclose, for example, whether they receive gifts or sponsorships from organisations, institutions and corporations;
» Independent actions should be maintained through keeping a healthy distance from activists, government and other stakeholders to avoid compromising independence and judgement;
» Accuracy should be ensured by keeping informed of current information on scientific and social interventions relating to HIV and AIDS and by participating in training programmes. Unclear facts should be verified with expert assistance;
» Informed reporting should be provided by including context, for example statistics should be placed in context by acknowledging the underlying historical, racial, cultural, gender and socio-economic factors that fuel the epidemic, and the impact across all sectors of activity should be considered;
» Balance should be maintained in content and placements of stories, and between positive and critical reports;
»? Sensationalism should be guarded against in language used for headlines, captions and banners, especially where such headlines may appear to be offering false hope of cures or perpetuating stigma and discrimination;
» Sources should be properly used. At least two sources should be consulted per article, and their identity should be protected if required;
» Diversity and non-discrimination should be encouraged, and the portrayal of HIV/AIDS in the media should be de-racialised, cultural norms and values;
» Scepticism is useful when reporting on claims by government or service organisations and special deals, new treatments, drug trials or vaccine development by drug companies. Claims of “cures” should be substantiated by peer-reviewed articles published within recognised medical journals, or through obtaining the views of experts on the topic of concern.

Interviewing people living with HIV and AIDS requires special sensitivities

Media workers should be aware that:

» If they are ill they present a health risk to people whose immune systems may be compromised, and it is advisable to postpone scheduled interviews;
» It is advisable to interview individuals in their home language;
» ? Direct payment for interviews or material is not advised, though support provided through a third party and in the interest of the person concerned is acceptable.

V. HIV/AIDS and language

Media should continually strive to use language that is sensitive and non-stigmatising.

» HIV and AIDS – HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. AIDS is clinically defined as the point when an individual’s CD4 cell count falls below 200. Individuals can live for many years prior to the onset of AIDS. Media are encouraged to distinguish between HIV and AIDS;
» People living with HIV / HIV positive – is the preferred term to “HIV victim / sufferer” and “AIDS/HIV carrier”;
» HIV epidemic is preferred to the terms AIDS scourge or plague, both of which are sensational and may fuel panic, discrimination and hopelessness and add to the perception that people with HIV/AIDS are to be avoided;
» HIV (Antibody) Test, CD4 Cell Count Test, Viral Load Test – are preferred to the term “AIDS Test”. An HIV (antibody) test detects the antibodies, which are produced within 3-8 weeks of infection. The CD4 cell count measures the strength of the immune system and the Viral Load test measures the amount of the virus particles in the blood. These tests are used to measure the progress of HIV to AIDS;
» Fluids involved in the transmission of HIV should be specified as semen, breast milk, blood, vaginal fluid as not all bodily fluids transmit HIV;
» Contract HIV – is preferred to the term “catch HIV” as no one can catch HIV;
» “Innocent” is a word which suggests that someone else is guilty; it should be avoided as no-one chooses or deserves to contract HIV;
» Sex worker – is the preferred term to “prostitute” which is considered which is value laden and derogatory;
» Gay/homosexual/ men who have sex with men/ same sex – it is advisable that media check with the person concerned as to which term would most appropriate.

Implementation and Monitoring

These guidelines are self-regulatory. Newsrooms are encouraged to bring them to the attention of their staff, discuss the contents and explore integrating them into in-house codes of ethics and in-service training programmes. These guidelines will be provided to schools of journalism so that they can be integrated into existing curricula; they should also be discussed with SANEF and media regulatory authorities to explore integrating them into existing codes of media ethics in South Africa.

Monitoring of the implementation of the guide will be undertaken through continuous research on media reporting on HIV and AIDS. However it is recognised that advocacy is needed to engage editors and sub-editors on issues pertaining to HIV and media reporting.


Beamish, J. Reporting on HIV/AIDS in Africa: A Manual. African Womens Media Centre.

Browde, J (SC) and Kathree, F. (Independent Broadcasting Authority) Proposed New Code of Conduct. Accessed from:

Cullinan, K. 2003. Reporting ethically and effectively on HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Presentation to Journ-AIDS Roundtable.

Delate, R. 2003. HIV/AIDS and the Media: A Discussion Paper. Online presentation for the Mediascapes Course. University of Washington, Bothell and University of Natal. CADRE

Heywood, M. 2003. Constitutional and Legal Frameworks governing media reporting on HIV/AIDS. Presentation to Journ-AIDS Roundtable.

Press Ombudsman and Appeal Panel. The Constitution, Rules of Procedure and Code of Conduct as agreed to and approved by the Founding Bodies Committee on 6 April 2001.

Soul City, SANEF, Health-e, Department of Health. HIV/AIDS: A Resource for Journalists. Institute for Health and Development Communication.

Soul City & UNICEF. 2000. Childrens Rights and the Media: A Resource for Journalists. Institute for Health and Development Communication.

Stein, J. 2002. What’s News: Perspectives on HIV/AIDS in the South African media. CADRE.

UNESCO. 2000. Media & HIV/AIDS in East and Southern Africa: A Resource Book.

(These Draft Ethical Guidelines in Reporting on HIV and AIDS for the South African Media are being provided for comments. Organisations and individuals wishing to comment on the Guidelines can send an email to Richard Delate, Manager: Journ-AIDS at

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