The Relationship between Rhetoric and Public Health: A Case Study of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the United States




Smith, Mapenzi

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People living with HIV who perceive high levels of HIV-related stigma are more likely to abstain from testing and treatment for HIV and experience negative feelings towards themselves due to their positive HIV status. The perception of stigma directly impacts their health and wellbeing. This aim of this thesis is to investigate the relationship between rhetoric and health outcomes for those living with HIV/AIDS to understand better the role that health communication may play in forming and perpetuating stigma for this population. To evaluate this relationship, articles from The New York Times, The New York Native, The Washington Post and excerpts from Randy Shilt’s book And the Band Played On detailing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States between 1981 and 1990 were assessed as a comprehensive narrative to analyze the portrayal of those infected with or at high risk HIV/AIDS. Maurice Charland’s theory of Constitutive Rhetoric was used as a rhetorical approach to determine the implications of audience identification on public perception of the virus and public perception of themselves concerning the virus. This analysis uncovered that negatively constituted identities might result in stigmatization, marginalization, and discrimination towards a specific population, which in turn, may lead to poor health outcomes. This research provides new insight on the power of scientific narratives and seeks to caution the media on how the construction of scientific narratives, specifically narratives that can constitute identity, may directly impact an individual’s health outcomes.



rhetoric, public health, hiv/aids, hiv, aids