On Writing About The Ring

The press write about research, but for whom?

By Katie Stark

At the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), the ASPIRE study team presented their findings on their successes of their Dapivirine intravaginal microbicide ring. Although this finding has the potential to significantly impact the transmission of HIV to women, the news has not written the story to stick with the ring’s intended users. We have seen the same progression with PrEP: the breakthrough drug that people have been wanting for decades, yet many people don’t know about. As we have seen with PrEP, finding the drug is only half the battle; the other half is getting the word out.

When a new scientific discovery is made, the institution behind it typically sends out a press release, which is then hopefully picked up by journalists. Journalists then often contact the researchers, or don’t, and write a story from the angle they know: the news. Most news articles are written around “news values”, which are characteristics of stories thought to maximize readership. These include, among others, stories that are unexpected and negative[1]. These articles are then sent out to the public sphere, and are either glossed over by readers, or catch on like wildfire and become common knowledge. Today, this usually happens by way of an article “going viral” on the internet, largely through social media.

Research has shown that, when it comes to information about disparities, target populations respond best to articles discussing progress, rather than disparities that still exist[2]. However, despite this knowledge, even when trying to encourage a product’s use or behavioral change, many journalists still gravitate towards articles that focus on disparities[3]. This could explain why PrEP isn’t more widely known or used, and could determine the public’s acceptance of the ring, whose success was announced in the New York Times’ article in February[4].

The Times article teeters between disparity and progress rhetoric: it heavily emphasizes the disparity that African Women face in the worldwide burden of HIV; yet it also discusses the disease reduction that the trial saw. Upon the ring’s release, much of the writing about it should focus on the latter: projections of disease reduction with the widespread use of the ring. The theories behind why people respond more positively to progress-oriented articles also support the claim that articles should be more positive in general, which may include bolstering user confidence. This could include descriptions of how easy the ring is to insert and use, and how it is affordable and has a long shelf life. This could be particularly important for marketing to women in low-resource settings – the population to which the ring is targeted. Articles will also need to be positive in tone: the more positive emotions tied to an idea, the more positively the product will be viewed, which could influence use.

As we have seen with PrEP, even breakthrough drugs can be largely ignored by the public. Therefore, news outlets need to take on a dual role. Articles need to be written to facilitate positive social marketing so that research findings will reach those for whom the ring is designed. Writing for general popularity will not, on its own, inspire at-risk populations to learn about the ring, and thus use it. The ASPIRE Ring as well as other microbicidal ring trials (one of which I had the opportunity to be part of as a SexLab research team member) have huge potential, which can go unrealized if the second half of the battle is not responsibly fought.

[1] Galtung, J., & Ruge, M. H. (1965). The structure of foreign news. J Peace Res, 2, 64–90.

[2] Nicholson, R. A., Kreuter, M. W., Lapka, C., Wellborn, R., Clark, E. M., Sanders-Thompson, V., … & Casey, C. (2008). Unintended Effects of Emphasizing Disparities in Cancer Communicated to African-Americans. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarker, 17, 2946-53.

[3] Hinnant, A., Oh, H. J., Caburnay, C. A., & Kreuter, M. W. (2011). What Makes African American Health Disparities Newsorthy? An Experiment Among Journalists about Story Framing. Health Education Research, 26, 937-57.

[4] Grady, D. (2016, February 22). Vaginal Ring with Drug Lowers HIV Rates in African Women. The New York Times. Retreived from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/health/vaginal-ring-hiv-aids-drug-dapivirine.html?_r=0