Breaking News: Media needs to acknowledge their biases when reporting on monkeypox

Media coverage of monkeypox unnecessarily revives biases in HIV news coverage

A close-up 3D representation of a round, fluffy virus particle.
We can report epidemics without provoking ignorance against marginalised groups. PHOTO: CDC / Unsplash

By: Kelly Chia, Humour Editor

Content warning: mentions of racism, homophobia

Monkeypox cases are increasing globally and were declared a global emergency in late July. Since then, western media outlets are proving they don’t care about stoking bias toward marginalized groups, especially Black and gay people. Their coverage dehumanizes groups that already experience considerable stigma, so it’s pertinent that news media immediately makes training against racist and biased reporting a priority when covering epidemics.

In the case of early monkeypox outbreak reporting, news outlets like CNBC and The Independent used images of Black people with monkeypox when reporting local outbreaks. As a Chinese person who lived through early COVID-19 reporting that used photos of East Asian people, and heard it described across outlets as the “China virus,” I can confidently tell you what this does. It insidiously frames the people depicted as the root cause of the virus, and inadvertently gives the public a group of people to blame. Their message was clear then as it is now: African people spread the disease that’s now (thanks to travellers) in your hometown.

The Foreign Press Association Africa (FPA) released a statement condemning western news outlets for framing monkeypox as a disease that only affects African people. FPA quoted the WHO’s comment that monkeypox occurs globally and can “afflict anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity.” They questioned if media is “in the business of ‘preserving white purity’ through ‘Black criminality or culpability.’” Indeed, the media’s decision to use images of Black people or those living in Africa to report the disease, rather than using images from local outbreaks, deliberately shapes troubling narratives of African countries. This type of reporting has the effect of normalizing stigma against people of African descent.

Additionally, early monkeypox reporting suggested the disease was primarily transmitted through sexual contact between gay men, since a lot of initial cases were seen in men who have sex with men. The Africa CDC also condemned this, saying they “have not seen any evidence of any specific group of persons being affected by monkeypox.” They noted this categorization would distract outbreak response and advised to “avoid definitions and communications that may stigmatize those exposed.”

The CDC recognizes it can spread through “direct contact with monkeypox rash, scabs, or body fluids from a person with monkeypox.” While this could mean sexual contact, it can spread through any contact with lesions which can form anywhere on the skin. WHO suggests close contact is the most common transmission route, but long periods of exposure to respiratory droplets can also lead to infection. Studies are still underway to expand our knowledge of the virus.

While it’s important to note the initial outbreaks affected a lot of men who have sex with other men, it’s equally important to report these outbreaks in a way that doesn’t target them or perpetuate stereotypes. We’re already seeing the effects of depicting monkeypox as a “gay disease” — a disease that only gay men can get. The Guardian noted that right-wing commentators have been quick to mock monkeypox victims who are men who have sex with other men. There are also incidents of men being attacked with reference to their sexuality and monkeypox. Reporting like this centres and blames queer men as the only monkeypox victims: parallel to the mistakes of AIDS/HIV news reporting in the ‘80s.

Discriminatory reporting makes it more difficult for queer men to seek healthcare or feel safe, especially in a time where more 2SLGBTQIA+ rights are aggressively being stripped in the United States. At least 80 children across multiple countries have already contracted monkeypox, which poses a threat to daycare and school settings. Media outlets must accurately report the virus to prevent outbreaks in school and childcare settings, instead of using queer men as a scapegoat for community transmission.

When western news media suggests the disease only occurs in these marginalized groups, they alienate people absorbing their reports by fostering inaccurate and biased beliefs. In reality, diseases don’t stay within one community. The fear, stigma, and moral judgment perpetuated by reporters who carelessly make marginalized groups culpable lingers. This disease affects you regardless of your sexuality, your ethnicity, and your region, much like many other diseases. It’s time for western media to stop playing into the narrative of regional purity and exception by perpetuating epidemics as foreign. Instead, western news media needs to focus on local facts and outbreaks, and undergo bias training to unravel their biases before reporting on stories that concern marginalized groups.

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