Sounding an alarm on AIDS

Spreading the word about someone who’s spreading the disease

How could the paper alert a community with the highest infection rate in the state without identifying the AIDS carrier?

By Ray Pace

Ray Pace was a reporter for the now-defunct Miami News at the time of this story. He is now a freelancer based in California.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 7 (July/August 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

It had been a slow news day in Key West. Then the phone rang aboard my sailboat, which was at the time also the correspondent’s office for The Miami News.

Noreen Sofranac, a health educator for the AIDS Education Project, a state-funded health testing agency, wanted to know if we would consider printing an announcement telling people where to go for AIDS testing.

I told her to send it to our Miami office. It would appear in a week. That wasn’t fast enough. Could we talk?

Later she explained her problem: The owner of a famous Key West bar had AIDS. Some 20 of his girlfriends had come in for testing. How many more people had been exposed was the big question.

If Sofranac could alert them to come in for testing, researchers could trace how fast AIDS spread through heterosexual contact, compared with homosexual contact. She would have a Key West version of “Patient Zero” (the first person in a chain of transmission).

Sofranac cited statistics, went on at length about symptoms of the disease, talked about how people could be tested in complete anonymity and urged the use of these facts in our newspaper.

She also gave me the bar owner’s name, said he was bisexual, possibly involved in drugs and extremely sexually active, reportedly picking up tourists in his bar.

At no time during our conversation did Sofranac ask to go off the record. Yet I knew she assumed I’d protect her from anything that would embarrass or damage her or her organization.

I left with the idea that I could find other sources to confirm the information. But it didn’t turn out to be that easy.

A top Key West police official backed Sofranac’s story, but our conversation was off the record. Two city commissioners told me similar stories about the bar owner. But again they were off the record.

I called my editor, Paul Kaplan, in Miami for advice. The key to the story, I told him, was Sofranac. Could she be quoted as the source of the information?

Had I promised her that anything was off the record? No.

We decided to publish the story quoting Sofranac. We knew she’d feel she had been wronged, but it was more important that the community be warned — especially since Key West had the highest AIDS infection rate in Florida. The fact that 20 or more contacts could be traced to see how the disease developed in male/female relations was news.

The next question: Do we name the bar owner? We decided not to, having little hard proof of his medical condition. There was no need, we reasoned, to infringe on anyone’s privacy. A description of his position in the community, coupled with his basic behavior pattern, would be enough warning to readers.

The following day, the story ran on page one, headlined “Researchers will track lovers of Keys AIDS victim.”

The story said that the unnamed AIDS carrier, a Key West bar owner, was known to have recently had sex with at least 20 women who had since come in for testing. It also said researchers planned to use the information to trace the spread of AIDS among heterosexuals. Only Sofranac was named in the story.

She was furious, complaining that what she’d told me was confidential and that her agency’s credibility had been ruined.

Another twist to the story came several weeks later. Alison Tradup, a Key West singer, filed suit in circuit court to gain access to the medical records of James R. Mayer, part owner of Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Her suit said she had an urgent need to know whether Mayer was infected with the AIDS virus because her life and that of her unborn child were in jeopardy.

This time, we didn’t hesitate to name the individuals involved, since the story had moved to the courts and we were reporting matters of public record. The effect AIDS could have on a community was a larger consideration than what little remained of the privacy of those involved. By this point, all the other local media were running the story.

If Mayer’s medical history was secret, his wife’s turned out to be open. In trying to get Mayer’s reaction to Tradup’s suit, I called his home. “I’m sorry, he ain’t here,” a male voice said. “He’s on his way to his wife’s funeral.”

A check of the funeral homes in Key West soon produced the name of Valerie Mayer’s physician. He was hesitant to talk with a reporter until I explained that I could get what I wanted from the death certificate he had signed. What did Valerie Mayer die of?

“She died of an AIDS-related disease,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

We included the doctor’s information on the wife’s cause of death in our story on the law suit Tradup had filed. Our reasoning was that it was supported by public record and had a bearing on the developing story.

Several days later, Tradup won the right to look at Mayer’s medical records and to share the information with her doctor, providing that neither revealed the contents.

In retrospect, I still think we handled the story correctly, even though a good source had been alienated in the process.

In this case, the public’s need to know about a serious health threat outweighed the individual’s right to privacy.

Editor’s update: Since the events discussed in this article, James R. Mayer has died of AIDS and several states are debating the legality of the media identifying AIDS patients.

 

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