Write On As it edits its AIDS argot, the American media changes the way the public thinks about the disease

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On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report about five young gay men in Los Angeles with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). Up until that point, this type of pneumonia was almost exclusively seen in severely immuno-suppressed people, such as the elderly or those receiving chemotherapy. That day, The Los Angeles Times covered this confounding report under the headline, “Outbreaks of Pneumonia Among Gay Males Studied.” A month later, after a second report by the CDC, The New York Times published an article about “a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer” diagnosed in 41 homosexual men mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area. The article also linked this form of cancer, called Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), to “severe defects in their immunological systems.” These mysterious outbreaks would eventually come to be known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease Syndrome (AIDS), and these news reports were two of the earliest mentions of AIDS in the American mainstream press.

Since then, media coverage of AIDS by American journalists has seen many highs and lows. At times erroneous reporting has incited fear, hysteria, discrimination, and even death; at other times sound reporting has helped to educate, inspire compassion and spur people into action. And while the coverage has come a long way since the public first became aware of the disease more than 25 years ago, most journalists and media critics would argue that the journey has really just begun. Here’s a look at where we came from, and where we still have yet to go.

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