Recent data show that the number of deaths from HIV has declined but the disease continues to spread. An emerging line of research suggests that the apparent increase may be due to complacency, whereby faith in medicine encourages risk-taking behavior. This study examines the hypothesis that certain approaches in the news media could disproportionately influence perceptions of treatment success even when paired with statistics. College students and gay men, recruited in the community, were exposed to a fictional news story in which the ratio of four cases of people taking antiretroviral (ARV) medications was varied in two conditions. The story was either consistent with or inconsistent with the success-rate data presented by an alleged medical expert in the story. Participants’ perceptions of ARV success were estimated following exposure to the story. As expected, the personal news stories influenced estimation of ARV success more than the presence of statistical success rate data. Consistent with previous exemplification research, the size of the effect suggests that the stories influenced judgments of the true success rate by roughly 10 to 20%. The effect was moderated by sexual orientation, but not by gender. Exemplification as a journalistic tendency may be one factor that contributes to unrealistic faith in medical advancements. These data suggest that future research should explore in detail the extent and context of HIV/AIDS reporting using exemplification theory with considerations for how reporting might be modified to have less of an effect on increased sexual risk-taking.
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