In South Africa, numerous strong policy statements emphasise the importance of involving communities in HIV/AIDS management, yet in practice such involvement tends to be tokenistic and minimal. Social representations in the public sphere constitute the symbolic dimension within which responses to HIV and AIDS are conceptualised and transformed into action. Through an analysis of newspaper articles, we explore the dominant representations of HIV/AIDS management circulating in the South African public sphere and examine how community engagement is depicted. We highlight the way media representations reflect narrow understandings of HIV and AIDS as a predominantly medical problem, while depicting HIV/AIDS management as a top-down activity dominated by prominent individuals, such as national leaders, health professionals and philanthropists, thus marginalising the role played by communities, who are often depicted as passive recipients of interventions by active outsiders. These representations fail to reflect the key role played by members of grassroots communities in responding to the HIV epidemic. Such representations provide flawed conceptual tools for shaping responses to the epidemic, given that HIV-related programmes are unlikely to have optimal outcomes unless they resonate with the perceived needs and interests of their target communities, as we contend that effective HIV/AIDS management is best achieved through active participation by communities in HIV/AIDS management strategies. We discuss the implications of a more 'civic-minded journalism.'