Internalized Consensus: The Effect of Episodic Narratives on HIV/AIDS attitudes among African Americans

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Principal investigator:

Lester K. Spence

Johns Hopkins University



Sample size: 404

Field period: 3/15/2006-3/23/2006


HIV/AIDS represents a clear and present danger in African American communities. However black elites have been slow to mobilize against the disease. Theory suggests that the media plays a role in this dynamic, generating antipathy against HIV/AIDS carriers within black communities. In this study, I conduct an innovative experiment involving 400 black subjects exposing them to one of nine different news stories (8 different HIV/AIDS narratives, 1 control). Six of these narratives involve men who have contracted HIV/AIDS through sex with men, two of these narratives are more thematic narratives tracing the spread of the disease among the general (African American, American) public. After exposure to the stories respondents were asked to give their opinion about a range of issues related to HIV/AIDS.


Major hypotheses:
H1: Exposure to the stories involving male victims increases antipathy towards black men.
H2: Exposure to the stories involving male victims decreases liberal attitudes towards HIV/AIDS.
H3: Exposure to the stories involving male victims increases support for political action on HIV/AIDS.
Minor hypotheses:
H4: Black men are more likely to be influenced by exposure to the narrative than black women are.
H5: Those who attend religious services regularly are more likely to be influenced by exposure to the narrative than those who do not attend religious services regularly.

Experimental Manipulations

Respondents were exposed to one of nine stories. Six stories dealt with a man who contracted HIV/AIDS through sex with another man. Both the professed sexuality (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual) and the relationship status (single, in a monogamous relationship) were manipulated. Two stories were more general stories that described HIV/AIDS rates among either the American population in general, or the African American population specifically. A control story dealing with technology was also included.


Five feeling thermometer variables assessing sentiment towards: blacks, black men, black bisexual men, black homosexual men, black women.
Six stigma variables measuring attitudes about HIV/AIDS and the sexual behaviors associated with it.
Six variables measuring support for various public policies around HIV/AIDS.


In this work I present the case for thinking about HIV/AIDS as an internalized consensus issue-an issue that is deemed important enough by elites to mobilize around yet at the same time one that is blamed on internal causes rather than external causes. My work suggests that media narratives play a significant role in influencing intra-racial attitudes, and is an essential component in the secondary marginalization of subsets of African Americans. Media narratives emphasizing black male complicity in HIV/AIDS dampens positive sentiment towards them as well as towards black homosexuals and bisexuals in particular, while simultaneously increasing support for political activity against HIV/AIDS. This research builds on and extends the research on media and public opinion as well as the research on marginalized groups.


Spence, Lester K. 2007. "Secondary Marginalization and HIV/AIDS: Uncovering the Role of the Media", Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois.