Media analysis: Grand Rapids HIV criminal case spurs ‘sensationalist’ reporting

Posted on: January 9th, 2012 by Todd Heywood 3 Comments

An alleged admission by a 51-year-old Comstock Park, Mich., man that he attempted to infect hundreds of people with HIV through unprotected sexual activity and needle-sharing has sparked a media feeding frenzy, which HIV activists and legal experts have roundly censured as “sensationalist.”

In spite of the national condemnation, local media and the Kent County Health Department are standing by their reporting.

“In this extreme case, the challenge becomes to look beyond the sensational and focus on information that would be helpful to the public,” said Colette Seguin Beighley, a Grand Rapids resident and board member of the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Michigan, in an email to The American Independent. ”What may be most helpful would be to use this as an opportunity to provide information about the different ways HIV is transmitted along with accompanying infection rates. … It would also resist feeding into hysteria which vilifies and victimizes HIV+ people.”

While nearly every media outlet that has written or reported about this case has identified the Comstock Park man by name, it is TAI’s policy not to identify those alleged to be living with HIV in criminal matters such as disclosure cases, unless they are convicted or the individuals pursuing charges are identified by name either in interviews, court documents, or other publications or reports.

The background

Grand Rapids Police allege the man walked into their station on Dec. 22, 2011, and told detectives he was turning himself in for attempting to infect hundreds of people with HIV by sharing needles and having unprotected sex with them. Police claim he admitted to wanting to kill people with the virus.

The man was placed in psychiatric observation while police investigated his claims. On Dec. 24, he was arraigned on one felony count of the state’s HIV disclosure law. That 1988 law makes it a crime for a person with HIV to engage in sexual penetration, “however slight,” without first disclosing his or her HIV-positive status. On Dec. 28, police and prosecutors added a second disclosure-law felony. Officials say they expect to file more criminal charges as their investigation continues.

This was not the man’s first trip to psychiatric observation and care, nor would it be his last. Earlier in 2011, he was ordered by a court to a 90-day commitment to facility. On Tuesday, the court sent him to a state-run criminal psychiatric hospital in Ypsilanti, Mich., for evaluation on his mental fitness to stand trial.

Why the man was ordered to be hospitalized in 2011 is unclear, and health officials refuse to say, claiming they do not want to violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The press release

Following word of the arraignment on the first charge, the Kent County Health Department issued a press release (PDF), which was presented as a ‘Health Alert’ without noting that the health department has no actual legal authority to make such a declaration.

That release, experts interviewed by The American Independent say, was the source of the sensationalism in reporting.

“My concern with the press release distributed by the Kent County Health Department is its use of the term ‘victim,’ said Michigan Positive Action Coalition (MI-POZ) director Mark Peterson in an email. “This assumes the continuing criminalization of an individual who has HIV. Neither the press release or anything else I’ve read in the media about this case so far has asked if [the suspect's] partners asked him about his HIV status or knew or disclosed their own HIV or STI status.”

Peterson also expressed concerns that the press release failed to address transmission probabilities in a clear and concise way. While the press release noted that transmission rates vary based on which activity is involved, it failed to note exactly how low those probabilities are.

A 2011 Journal of AIDS study by Julie Fox et al. found that the highest probability of infection in a one-time sexual encounter with an HIV-positive person was 1.4 percent for receptive anal intercourse. The Center for HIV Law & Policy has created a comparative chart of infection probabilities comparing HIV, herpes, human papillomavirus (HVP), and gonorrhea. HPV and gonorrhea have staggeringly high transmission rates. HPV — which has been linked to several forms of cancer, including cervical, penile, throat, mouth and anal cancer — has a risk between 43 percent and 93 percent, while gonorrhea has a 25 percent to 50 percent transmission rate. Herpes’ transmission rates, however, are below a 10th of 1 percent, similar to most exposures to HIV.

Ignoring these realities about AIDS and HIV, Peterson said, feeds common misinformation about the disease.

“I think there are two important issues at play here in the media coverage thus far: the lack of concrete information about exactly how infectious HIV is, resulting in wild speculation and implication by media that everyone he contacted got infected, and this case highlights the lack of knowledge in the general public and from the media concerning HIV transmission, as well as feed the assumption that people living with HIV in general, are negligently transmitting HIV to others,” Peterson said.

He also told TAI that several studies have found that those living with HIV who know of their status are unlikely to be the source of new infections. Those studies, Peterson said, were written by Dr. David R. Holtgrave of Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA). In those reports, Holtgrave said infections caused by those who know they are living with the virus represent only 2 percent of the total new infections. Meanwhile, the 20 to 25 percent of Americans living with the virus and unaware of their infection are responsible for the remaining 98 percent of new infections.

“Hysterical, inaccurate reporting feeds hysteria and stigma against people with HIV,” said Beirne Roose-Snyder, an attorney with the Center for HIV Law & Policy. “The characterizations of HIV in the news articles and the press release encourage a view of individuals with HIV as toxic, irresponsible and predatory.”

The media frenzy

Activists told TAI that this poorly formed press release, which they say provided little factual information, resulted in a flurry of sensational reports. The Global Grind called the suspect “a total monster,” while in an interview with WOOD TV 8, NBC’s Grand Rapids affiliate, one anonymous woman who claimed the suspect infected her with HIV in 2008 called him a “sociopath” and “predator.” The headline from the Grand Rapids Press’ coverage of the man’s preliminary hearing is “Psychiatric exam slated for [name of suspect redacted] who is accused of intentionally spreading AIDS.” In a national blog written by an expert in criminal issues, the man is referred to as a “serial murder.”

In the interview with WOOD TV 8, the woman who alleged the suspect infected her in June 2008 was not challenged about her accusation, nor was she asked basic questions about the sexual encounter with the man (did she ask about his disease status? did she ask that he use a condom? had she previously engaged in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex or sharing needles?). The WOOD interviewer noted — and did not challenge — the woman’s charge that the suspect told her he had attempted to infect as many as 3,000 people. The reporter did not question this allegation, in light of the suspect’s mental health issues, nor did he ask why the woman had not come forward in October 2008, when she was diagnosed, or later when he allegedly told her about his plan to infect people. The reporter also failed to note that determining direction of infection (who infected whom) is not scientifically possible.

The woman’s claims that the man attempted to infect 3,000 people were then used in subsequent reporting by the television station. But Grand Rapids Police and court documents say the suspect told police he tried to infect “hundreds” of people.

This kind of media coverage, activists say, increases stigma against those living with HIV.

“Is the coverage stigmatizing? Of course it is,” said Peter Kronenberg, communications director of the National Association of People With AIDS, in an email. “It doesn’t acknowledge that [suspect's name redacted] campaign to infect as many people as possible is way out in the ‘alpha tail’ of aberrant behavior, and that leaves readers (many of whom already have hang-ups about minority sexual orientation and HIV as a ‘gay’ disease) free to conclude that this is how all people with HIV behave. The only story we’ve seen so far that even mentions [suspect's name redacted] confinement for psychiatric evaluation is (here). The news coverage also fails to remind readers that it is the responsibility of both partners in a sexual act (or drug sharing) to protect themselves. With partners who know each other well, that means saying, I’m HIV-(positive/negative), what about you? With partners who don’t, it means assuming nothing, no matter what is asked or what is answered, and using condoms. Just because (s)he says (s)he’s negative doesn’t mean it’s true. Too many people don’t know their status, and some, regrettably, lie – out of fear of rejection.”

Sean Strub, co-chair of the Global Network of People with HIV/AIDS North America (GNP+), told TAI that this type of media coverage actually perpetuates the fear of HIV-positive people to disclose their status. A Kaiser Family Foundation report released in June of 2011 found that six in 10 Americans get their HIV information from news reports. That, activists say, is the reason the “sensationalist” reporting is particularly damning to HIV-prevention, -intervention and -care efforts.

“The media coverage makes those who truly fear they might have HIV more reluctant to find out, as it underscores the stigma, and it definitely makes it tougher for people who know they have HIV to disclose,” Strub said.

“Sensationalist reporting about HIV criminalization cases, including this one, are a serious hindrance to good HIV education,” said attorney Roose-Snyder. “It greatly skews the truth about how, how easily, and by whom most HIV is transmitted, since 1) most HIV transmission takes place during consensual sex between two adults who do not know their HIV status; 2) once most people know they are HIV positive they typically reduce their sexual risk-taking behaviors; and 3) most HIV-positive people who are aware of their status do not want to – and in fact do not – transmit HIV.”

Of concern for many of the activists TAI talked to was that the suspect’s mental health issues were barely, if ever, mentioned in the reporting. And the Kent County Health Department is holding the specifics of what illness the man is suffering from as a tightly guarded secret.

When asked why she failed to note the mental health issues in her press release or subsequent public comments, Kent County communications director Lisa LaPlante cited HIPAA concerns. When asked why revealing mental health information about the suspect was a violation of HIPAA but revealing his HIV status was not, LaPlante told TAI,”[His] HIV status was disclosed as two criminal charges, therefore a component of the press release.”

But the suspect’s two-day confinement in a psychiatric hospital following his alleged admissions was also part of the news, somewhat nullifying LaPlante’s HIPAA claims, activists say.

“The public fears people with HIV more than they fear people with mental health issues; in this circumstance it seems like the media and public health authorities are responding or playing to the public’s fear and biases rather than the real underlying issue with this individual,” Strub said. “Understanding mental health issues is more nuanced and complicated; it is far easier to play into the hysteria, ignorance and fear engendered by HIV.”

“While it’s hard to imagine what the motivation of any story is from a legal standpoint of the criminal case, it is common for one side to leak only that information which is beneficial to the case,” said Joshua Moore, an attorney who runs Detroit Legal Services, an HIV legal specialty clinic. “Here it would be beneficial for a prosecutor to have information leaked that did not include [the suspect's] mental illness so that the community would be biased towards his case.”

Sex vs. syringes

Also of concern with the reporting, from the standpoint of HIV/AIDS, is the focus on sexual exposure. The suspect allegedly told police he shared needles and had sex in an attempt to infect as many people as possible.

“Why does sex feature prominently in the story as reported and not the needle-sharing?” Kronenberg said. “HIV disease’s strange negative glamour comes directly from its having shown up first in gay men. The mixed fascination and repulsion some people feel about same-sex sexuality says a lot more about them than it does about gay people. Sex sells newspapers; if you haven’t seen it already, have a look at the coverage in the UK’s online tabloid Mail Online. This is the Mail Online’s kind of story.”

“My assumption here is that the issue of sex, especially anonymous sex via online interactions is more salacious then syringe-sharing,” said Peterson of MI-POZ. “It speaks more to our obsession with sex than it does our understanding of public health.”

Fittingly, Michigan’s HIV disclosure law does not require an HIV-positive person to disclose his or her status when sharing needles with someone. The focus on sexual transmission led then-state Sen. Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit) to tell the Michigan Messenger the current law “hasn’t been able to protect the public.”

Standing by the reports

The American Independent sent requests for comment to WOOD TV 8, the Kent County Health Department, and the Grand Rapids Press.

WOOD TV 8 News Director Rebecca Sapakie issued the following statement about her station’s news coverage of the case:

WOOD TV is proud of its in-depth reporting on this issue. When we first heard about the case, we contacted police, prosecutors and the health department to expand our perspective on the story. We used comments from the suspect himself to police, investigators, official court documents, victims and the health department to frame our stories. As we uncovered new facts, we followed the story in the days beyond our initial reports. News stories frequently deal with the unusual or rare cases. We pride ourselves in giving perspective to these stories and offering our viewers important information. This was a case where public officials believed it was appropriate to alert the public given the known facts. We are confident with our reporting on this story and we’ll continue to follow it if new developments are discovered.

Grand Rapids Press Editor Paul Keep did not respond to several emails seeking comment.

Bonnie Bucqueroux, a journalism professor at Michigan State University and former director of the Victims and the Media Project there, said she thinks criticism of the reporting is unfounded.

“I am always willing to criticize the press when I think they deserve it,” she told TAI. “I think most did a pretty good job.”

Lisa LaPlante from the Kent County Health Department said she stands by her press release and sees no need to revise it. She also added that the press has had an impact on testing for HIV.

“I feel confident that the information provided in the news release has been helpful to the community, as we have seen an uptick in free, confidential, anonymous client testing for HIV since [the suspect's] arrest,” she said.

But activists say the uptick is unlikely to be helpful in actually addressing the HIV epidemic in Kent County and beyond.

“No, an increase in testing does nothing if the community as a whole is ignorant to the disease itself,” said attorney Moore. “There are many individuals out in the community that I work with every day who are scarred to death that a family member or church member finds out their infected with HIV. These types of reports only feed that fear and stigma. The fear and stigma often prevent people living with HIV from getting the proper education themselves. The media has a responsibility to cover these types of stories with balance and offer a means for individuals in the public to get educated.”

Photo: Kent County, Mich. logo (www.accesskent.com)

Kent County Press Release December 27, 2011

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