Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I am Left Asking...

By Thomas Henning

Last year, it is estimated that 2.1 million children under the age of 15 were living with HIV. Around the world, 5.4 million young people are living with HIV. Beyond that, over 15 million children under 18 have lost one, if not both, of their parents due to AIDS and those numbers don’t address issues related to the epidemic, issues like deepening poverty, stigma, access to health care, and lack of access to education that millions more deal with on a daily basis.

There is no question that a greater emphasis needs to be place on HIV prevention. Young people need information; information that is accurate, age-appropriate, and in a culturally relevant-voice that they can hear and relate to.

It is also important that they receive that information in an environment that is inviting, engaging, and protective. An environment where they can talk openly about the risky behavior they, and their peers, may engage in and what they can do to be better advocates for those they care for, including themselves.

Cable can, and does, play a critical role in getting HIV information to young people. Some networks do it much better than others. Some are the example of what can be done to help change the course of this epidemic while others fall short.

I remember the first time I saw HIV-related programming. It was early on in the epidemic and the images that I saw, the story that I was told, stayed with and helped to re-enforce the fear and stigma that the media had helped develop in me, through their reporting.

I was alone when I watched the program. I didn’t have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with someone about what I saw. The next day, I didn’t have a peer group that was open to discussing what I saw.

My school’s HIV prevention efforts were not engaging or inviting. They were shame-based, ill-informed attempts to keep me “on the right track.”

The framework for building the tools to educate and advocate for myself was not there. It wasn’t there in my school, on the playground, or in the home. Of course, that was 1985 and things are different 23 years later. The question is, how different?

In this country, are school-based HIV prevention efforts as sophisticated as they can be? Are families as pro-active as they can be to equip their children with the tools needed to be strong self-advocates? Is media doing all it can to increase HIV education and prevention efforts?

Youth are mobilizing to address the epidemic proving that they themselves can be a powerful resource when it comes to education and prevention efforts. Peer educators acting as mentors in their communities. Online communities where people can share challenges and life experiences and draw from each other’s knowledge and support, outrage and fear, and belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow.

My question is: Why has media programming not kept up with the pace that young people are setting? Media has long been acknowledged as having the power to impact behavioral changes among consumers. Behavioral changes are the most powerful weapons that young people have against HIV.

1 out of 4 young people rank AIDS their top concern. It is understandable given the fact that 1 out of every 2 new infections occur in young people ages 15-24.

Young people ages 13-25, or “Millennials” as marketing professional call them, are one of the most important and socially conscious consumers, over 70 million strong, spending approximately $172 billion per year and heavily influencing many adult consumer buying choices.

From a simple business standpoint, doing right in the world is also doing right by this important consumer—a consumer that, according to a Cone study, 8 out of 10 times will work for a company that cares about how it affects or contributes to society.

According to that same study, 69% of Millennials consider a company's social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop, and 83% will trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible.

So then why the scarcity of HIV-related programming on those shows that target that market? Why the scarcity of HIV-related documentaries and news coverage from those networks that target that market?

Again, there are some strong examples of networks that understand that doing good not only improves the communities served but can also improve the company’s bottom line. Looking at the media landscape I am left asking “Is enough being done? Can more be done?”

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