We examine why the exponential growth of AIDS cases or the widespread professional perception of a health crisis did not move the epidemic more quickly onto the agenda of public problems. One possible explanation focuses on how the national news media's construction of AIDS shaped the meaning of the epidemic for mass and elite audiences. An examination of nightly news coverage by the three major networks from 1982 to 1989 reveals considerable variability and volatility in their coverage. Topic-driven saturation coverage occurred only during three short periods in 1983, 1985, and 1987, when the epidemic seemed likely to affect the “general population.” Only at such moments did public opinion shift and discussion and debate in government begin. Otherwise, the typical AIDS story tended less to sensationalize than to reassure, largely because journalists depended upon government officials and high-ranking doctors to present them with evidence of news. Such sources had interests either in avoiding coverage or in pointing toward breakthroughs; more critical sources, especially within the gay movement, had far less access to the news. In concluding, we considered the prospects and pitfalls of the news media's power to shape the public agenda.

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