FAU Paper Must Retract HIV-Related Story; Should Apologize to Community | Opinion

The newsroom of the University Press. Courtesy photo.

Curse. That’s the word the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University used to describe the HIV status of a former student, who is positive.

It’s outrageous. And offensive.

The paper wrote: “As [student] embraces his condition, he depicts this curse…”

Out South Florida is calling for a retraction of the story and an apology to the LGBTQ community.

As a gay man, I remember coming of age in the 90s when HIV could still mean death. I vividly recall my first HIV test. The fear. The anxiety. Back then, we had to wait two weeks to get the results. It was excruciating. And that happened almost every time I got tested. Questions would always swirl. Did the condom break? Was I safe enough? There was a tinge of fear with every sexual encounter. And the guilt when I got caught up in the heat of the moment and didn’t use a condom.

Seven years ago, a best friend of mine tested positive and I remember that phone call when he confided in me. It was heartbreaking. There was nothing I could do except offer my support and compassion.

Is he “cursed?”

We lost an entire generation of gay and bi men to this disease.

Were they “cursed?”

When these students act so casual and callous, it’s deeply disappointing.

The whole story was poorly written and contained numerous factual errors about HIV. This is 2023, not 1987. HIV is not some new disease we’re still learning about.

Medical misinformation about HIV was rampant in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so to see these students spread it and have so little care to get it right — that’s unconscionable.

The student newspaper, the University Press, is a learning institution and so it should be granted some leeway to make mistakes. But what infuriates me is the cover-up that has slowly unfolded since the story was posted.

The editors have offered up no apology, retraction or correction. Even though the word “curse” has since been removed, other problems remain.

This story, “Transgender artists advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness through art,” doesn’t just include one offensive passage – it’s a lot worse.

I’ve sent at least five emails to the paper’s adviser with lists of corrections. You wouldn’t know that though if you read the story, which now includes an “editor’s note” using warm and fuzzy words like “updated” and “clarify.”

When we as journalists get it wrong – it can be embarrassing and humbling – the proper way to handle it is through transparency and honesty with our readers.

The editors attempted to “update” the story but continued to miss errors, insert new errors, or were completely oblivious to why I had a problem with a certain passage.

So they didn't spread medical misinformation just once – they did so multiple times in multiple versions of the story.

Here’s one example: “…but medications can treat the condition and facilitate disease progression.”

Wrong. The way this reads is that HIV medications make the disease worse.

Let me be clear: these are not updates and clarifications. These are major factual errors. Their “updates” are disingenuous and misleading – or what I call cover-ups.

The editor emailed me once saying all the “adjustments” have been made. Again, these are not “adjustments.” These are major factual errors.

Here’s another error that remains: “referrals for PrEP, a medication used to manage HIV…”

That’s not true. PrEP prevents HIV.

In my email I noted there were still errors yet no one from the newspaper bothered to contact me further.

That amounts to journalism malpractice and malfeasance.

It’s hard to imagine a major publication revising, rewording, and rewriting a story three times after publication with no detailed correction or an apology.

I sent the story to two well-respected journalists in HIV and queer media. Both agreed with my corrections, pointed out other errors I missed on my first read, and added their thoughts.

One said: “Where was the editor? How could they allow such awkward and misleading language about HIV transmission? Not a good look for a teaching institution.”

Another said: “…they should get the facts right and learn how to properly write about HIV as well as trans and queer people. The piece is poorly written too, surprising for college level writing. But let’s hope it’s a writer [who is] quick to learn. The editor though, is a bit to blame here.”

I don’t blame the writer per se, but he had an opportunity to weigh on the corrections. Instead, he ignored my emails. I do, however, point the finger at the editor and managing editor.

Before publishing, I offered them an opportunity to respond. No one did.

I can’t be sure how much of the leadership knows the problems with this story, so I will reserve judgment toward them. After publication of this Op-Ed though, there will be no excuse. All of them will be complicit.

When I first read the story, I thought … how could students be writing this way about HIV in 2023? It’s shocking.

Nowhere in the story did it even mention HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. The story gives more weight to mother-to-child transmission of HIV (a rare occurrence) rather than sex.

The story was so poorly written that some of the wording was difficult for me to even determine if it was correct. So I consulted a professional – Stephen Fallon, executive director of Latinos Salud.

The below sentence was revised at least three times.

The UP writes: “HIV transmits through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood and semen from a person with a detectable viral load.”

Fallon Explains: “...they are listing the white blood cell rich fluids rather than the activities or behaviors that could introduce those fluids internally. The CDC has pretty clear language: "Most people who get HIV get it through anal or vaginal sex, or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment (for example, cookers).”

The UP writes: “Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding can also spread HIV, the World Health Organization reported.”

Fallon says: “Same here. They are leaving out the exchange of fluids. The [World Health Organization] actually says ‘HIV can be transmitted via the exchange of a variety of body fluids from people living with HIV, such as blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. HIV can also be transmitted during pregnancy and delivery to the child. People cannot become infected through ordinary day-to-day contact such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing personal objects, food or water.”

Am I being nitpicky? No. Journalists have to take care when writing about medical topics. Sloppy doesn’t cut it. Spreading medical misinformation is stigmatizing and dangerous.

I did not want to write this editorial. Not only is FAU my alma mater, I was once the editor of the University Press. However, shoddy journalism must be addressed. I attempted to do it privately, but it’s clear after many emails, they’re not listening.

So here we are.

Some might think that this is what you get with a student newspaper. But students don’t get a pass. They shouldn’t. Their words carry weight. Words have power. Even words by students.

They have to learn to take this seriously.

You might wonder who is teaching these students. Well, that brings me to my next point. This semester, the FAU School of Communication launched a wire service produced by students.

Great idea. This allows students to potentially get published in local outlets like The Palm Beach Post, Sun Sentinel and WLRN.

But when I read their story “In an Era of ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ Teachers Wait for Better Pay” I quickly noticed the facts didn’t add up. Here’s the first sentence: “[...] Starting next July […] teachers in Florida will make no less than $65,000.”

Except that’s not true. Not even close. A bill was introduced in the Florida legislature. That’s it. It’s doubtful it will pass and be signed into law.

I emailed the instructor in charge, and she promptly removed the story, saying the student told her, “This semester is seemingly stressful, and I let fact-checking fall through the cracks."

I guess that’s an acceptable response for a college level class assignment.

But the problem with these wire stories is they’re being sent out to professional publications. I fact-checked another story by the same student reporter and found numerous issues in an article that was published in The Palm Beach Post and Sun Sentinel. 

This week, the wire service published a story that appears to have a fabricated caption on one of its photos – a serious transgression in journalism.

One of the four tenets of the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists includes “Be Accountable and Transparent.”

It reads: “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.”

If we can’t hold ourselves accountable, how can we expect our readers to trust us to hold those in power accountable?

Here is one tip from TrustingNews, a journalism support organization working to empower journalists to actively earn trust from their community.

“Next time you mess up, be willing to have an open dialogue with your users about what happened. This could be as simple as admitting to the mistake, explaining how it happened, and talking about what you are going to do to prevent future similar mistakes. You could also use it as an opportunity to have the community weigh in on what you can do better next time.”

I hope Neil Santaniello, a former reporter and an instructor of mine while in college, reads this. I have great respect for his work. He now teaches an ethics in journalism class at FAU. If corrections, retractions and the importance of transparency are not a part of his class, I hope he will consider adding it to his curriculum.

At least one UP editor appears to understand what it means to be an ethical journalist, writing on social media this week, “Your credibility as a sports journalist relies on what you say. If you lie, you lose that.”

Actually, that applies to all journalists.

So if the UP cannot hold itself accountable – I will do it for them. I hope this is my last editorial on the subject. But if it isn’t, my next will name, names. I avoided doing so in this one because I still have faith they’ll do the right thing.

Jason Parsley is Publisher of Out South Florida. He’s an award winning journalist. He’s a former president of the Florida Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He’s the current president of South Florida chapter of The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists.


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Corrections: editorial@outsfl.com

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