Friday, August 08, 2008

Why SF Chron Had No AIDS Conference Coverage

If there's something San Franciscans could always depend on when the biennial AIDS conference rolled around, it was that the chief science reporter Sabin Russell would be there to cover it and turn in original reporting. Not this time though.

Except for a perfunctory piece over last weekend on the CDC's new scary HIV stats for the USA, written by the paper's reporter for security issues, the paper of record for America's AIDS model city had nothing original from the AIDS meeting in Mexico City. Heck, the Chronicle didn't pick up anything of substance from the wire services, or the hordes of freelance writers at the conference, but that's a separation matter.

Where was Russell and why wasn't he at the conference? He was in Boston at MIT preparing for a stint as a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. This is from MIT's site:

Sabin Russell is a medical writer at The San Francisco Chronicle where he has worked since 1986. He came to medical writing from business journalism, including covering the semiconductor and early biotechnology industries in the 1980s. In 2001 Russell won the Science in Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers. He holds a bachelors degree in English from Yale. While on campus Russell plans to study rapid genetic screening technologies and genome-wide association studies to identify common genetic factors that influence health.
If you tried emailing him during the AIDS conference, this was his automated reply:

I am currently at MIT on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and will not return to the Chronicle until June 2009. If you have breaking news, please send the e-mail to or call 415-777-xxxx and ask for the metro desk editor.
Allow me to get snarky and say the Chronicle could run press releases, slightly modified, from the health department, AIDS Inc groups or the myriad HIV programs at UCSF, while Russell is on his one-year sabbatical and no one would notice that he wasn't writing about AIDS for the paper anymore, because his stories on the subject were like moderately changed announcements from AIDS institutions.

Click here to read the full Bay Area Reporter story about a town hall forum at which mainstream gay health advocates were agitated over his reporting in January on drug resistant staph infections and gay men:

The activist group is working on a letter to demand an apology from the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran an article on the research with the headline "S.F. gay community an epicenter for new strain of virulent staph." They also want an apology from reporter Sabin Russell, who wrote the Chronicle story. The draft letter states the reporter insinuated, "MRSA was spreading due to gay men's sexual activities." Russell did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

I'm looking forward to the next year of no Sabin Russell stories on either HIV/AIDS or gay health issues. I believe he is among the worst science reporters when the matter at hand is AIDS or gay men, and a year without him serving as the mouthpiece for UCSF/SF DPH/AIDS Inc and whipping up sensationalism to keep eyeballs coming to the paper's web site or buying the paper is really doing gay men a huge favor.

Let's enjoy Sabin's sabbatical and pray the Chronicle appoints a more skeptical and curious health reporter while he's away.

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