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'But where are our moral heroes?' An analysis of South African press reporting on children affected by HIV/AIDS

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Messages conveyed both explicitly and implicitly in the media play an important role in shaping the public's understanding of issues, as well as in shaping associated policy, programmes and popular responses to these issues. This paper applies discourse analysis to a series of articles about children affected by HIV/AIDS published in 2002/2003 in the English-language South African press. The analysis reveals layers of moral messaging present in the reporting, the cumulative effect of which is the communication of a series of moral judgements about who is and who is not performing appropriate roles in relation to children. Discourses of moral transgression, specifically on the part of African parents and 'families' for failing in their moral responsibilities towards their children, coalesce with discourses on anticipated moral decay among (previously innocent) children who lack their due care. A need for moral regeneration among South Africans (but implicitly black South Africans) contrasts with accolades for (usually white), middle-class individuals, who, it is implied, have gone beyond their moral duty to respond. The article argues that in each instance the particular moralism is questionable in light of both empirical evidence and the principles of human dignity that underlie the South African constitution. Children — and particularly 'AIDS orphans' — are often presented in the press as either quintessential, innocent victims of the epidemic or as potential delinquents. While journalists' intentions are likely to be positive when representing children in these ways, the paper argues that this approach is employed at a cost, both to the public's knowledge and attitudes around the impact of HIV/AIDS, and, more importantly, to the lives of children affected by the epidemic.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2005-12-01

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