Imagine a day without responsible journalism

As we observe World AIDS Day, a key tool in the ongoing fight against intolerance, bigotry and oppression is under threat

CALGARY, Alta. Nov. 29, 2016/ Troy Media – Queen singer Freddie Mercury.

Tennis great Arthur Ashe.

Gunsmoke’s Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty), and Brady Bunch dad Robert Reed.

As we pause on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) to remember these and others lost to the insidious disease that was once thought to affect only gay men and IV drug addicts, I’m reminded, thankfully, of how far we’ve come.

I remember the fear. I remember the bigotry. I remember, as a young reporter immersed in the Los Angeles arts scene, watching friends and acquaintances die.

The fearful imagery evoked by the first observance of what was known as A Day Without Art: A National Day of Action and Mourning was real. The arts community by the end of the 1980s had already lost many up-and-coming talents, as well as big names like silver screen star Rock Hudson, flamboyant piano virtuoso Liberace, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, fashion designer Perry Ellis, and supermodel Gia Carangi (later portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the actress’s first big role).

When it began in 1989, A Day Without Art symbolized the depth of the threat to the arts community, and the fear that one day there literally could be no art, because the artists would all be gone. I remember the solemnity of the event in which some 700 U.S. museums, galleries and performance spaces either went completely dark; shrouded their biggest masterpieces; or mounted special exhibitions and performances, and/or collected funds for AIDS research.

But as the event’s annual participation grew to literally thousands of arts venues around the world, the steady losses continued in the ’90s: dance great Rudolf Nureyev, celebrity photographer and music video director Herb Ritts, New York artist David Wojnarowicz, fashion designer Halston, screen and theatre star Anthony Perkins,  NWA rapper Eazy-E, and the list goes on.

In those days before doctors discovered antiretroviral drugs that meant HIV and AIDS no longer assured coming death, pop artist Keith Haring – who himself died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 – was among those who created iconic artworks using the activist slogans “SILENCE = DEATH” and “IGNORANCE = FEAR.”

And while in no way dismissing the tragedy that HIV and AIDS continue to wreak upon people worldwide, I’m reminded that also under threat today is one of the most vital tools we have against ignorance, fear, bigotry and oppression: truthful, responsible journalism.

[popup url=”” height=”800″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]What you can do to keep responsible journalism alive[/popup]

As illustrated by those who fell prey to false news reports and hoaxes related to the U.S. election, the endless number of “news sources” in the digital sphere today seems to have overwhelmed citizens – with many seemingly unable to distinguish reputable news outlets from those that deliberately push forth lies for profit. Never mind the wide swath of bloggers and quasi-journalists between those extremes, or the usually legitimate news organizations that sunk to over-opinionated mud-slinging as they reveled over Donald Trump headlines bringing them – finally, albeit only in the short-term – higher ratings and increased ad dollars.

Just as awareness has been among the most important weapons in the fight against AIDS, journalism – when conducted by those who are educated and/or trained to seek out truth, in the interest of the populations we serve – is vital to the health of democratic nations and values.

Without high-quality, responsible journalism, we would lose our democratic rights to verified information that helps us make informed choices. We’d lose much of the global understanding that enriches our human connections. And we’d lose out on so many great stories of tragedy and triumph that bring us together – whether in mourning or in celebration.

In fact, AIDS activists used the power of factual, researched and verified journalism to eventually counter the popular perception that AIDS was a gay men’s disease, a highly contagious one that meant all gay men should be avoided and shunned. It was the reach of powerful reporting and analysis that eventually brought widespread awareness to the facts: anyone could contract HIV or AIDS, but there are effective means of protection, and you can’t catch it through casual contact.

It was journalists who shared the tragic story of the young Ryan White, a hemophiliac who died of the disease in 1990 at age 18 after becoming a household name in 1985 through his legal fight to attend a public school in Indiana, at a time when parents feared his very presence at school would infect their children. And it was journalists who have given us the more upbeat stories of basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who announced his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991 because of the HIV virus, but who has lived with it, productively, for a quarter century thanks to powerful medications.

We are fortunate that responsible journalists – who check their facts, who are transparent about both what they know and what they don’t know, and who use original reporting and storytelling to analyze and explain the impact of issues and developments – have been there for virtually every tragedy and triumph in modern history.

It was journalists who chronicled both the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the first human steps on the moon by Neil Armstrong in 1969.

It was journalists who then delivered the somber news when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all seven crew members. And it was journalists who chronicled the joyous rescue in 2010 of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for 69 days.

More recently, we relied on journalists for constant updates when our feelings of security were shattered after last year’s deadly attacks in Paris – just as we’d tuned in to TV newscasts to revel in Canadian men’s hockey’s gold medal victory over the United States in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

But it’s also our access to the local, smaller stories that could be lost if current threats against the news media continue unabated. Information about how and why our taxes go up, which foods are recalled and why, who the Flames’ or Blue Jays’ latest prospects are, and even what the weather will be tomorrow.

How would we function in our day-to-day activities without this information? Do we even realize what we could miss?

It’s time to acknowledge the vital role journalism plays in our lives. Before it’s too late.

To take a cue from the talented artists and activists who fought so valiantly against the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and ‘90s: “JOURNALISM = TRUTH,” and “NEWS = DEMOCRATIC VALUES.”

Yet journalism – the very entity that brought to light the facts needed to temper the fear and bigotry teenager Ryan White fought against just to be able to attend school – is now so endangered that we just could be approaching “A Day Without Responsible Journalism.”

For evidence, consider the venerable Oxford Dictionary’s [popup url=”″ height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]2016’s “Word of the Year”[/popup]: “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief(my emphasis).

Sounds just like what was happening in the early years of the AIDS crisis.

Unfortunately, we still have no cure for AIDS.

But someone in Canada who is diagnosed with HIV at 20 and takes antiretroviral drugs is expected to live into his or her early 70s, according to a [popup url=”″ height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]2013 report[/popup] by the North American AIDS Cohort Collaboration on Research and Design.

Let’s hope, too, that trained, responsible journalists and a vibrant North American news media also have a lengthy lifespan ahead.

Shauna Snow-Capparelli teaches media ethics and the impacts of journalism on society as an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary. A former Los Angeles Times reporter, her 1989 story on the first Day Without Art is archived [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]here[/popup].

Shauna is a Troy Media [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]contributor[/popup]. [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”1″] Why aren’t you?[/popup]

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