How to mount a public information exercise like the HIV and AIDS campaign with a "disappearing public" is a central theme of "Transmission '96" at Salford University later this year.
The arrival of thousands of new television and multi-media channels is likely to fragment audiences making it hard for the Government or health authorities to get their public messages across.
"Transmission '96" is a European-backed convention exploring the relationship between HIV/AIDS, the media and the arts.
Project leader Michael Tracey, visiting professor at Salford's international research department, said people will be too distracted by cable, satellite and video communication and the information superhighway. No one had yet solved the problem, he added.
"This is not just a difficulty for the developed world," he said. "In Asia, for example, there are 2,000 satellite channels coming on stream and there is no place on earth where this technology is not being developed."
How can communications technology be harnessed to distribute bodies of knowledge about, for instance, safe sex, and what can public policy do to address the problem?
"Must we face up to the possibility that we are looking at a future of information haves and have-nots that will prove especially dysfunctional and disastrous when we face collective crises?" asks Professor Tracey.
The convention is examining the character of the various information campaigns around AIDS to determine their effectiveness.
The imagery of AIDS will also be explored, in art, entertainment and drama - areas which stimulate the emotions rather than reason.
"We should not be fearful of playing off the contradictions and disagreements about the meaning of cultural expression," Professor Tracey says.
"For example, between those who applaud the film Philadelphia and those who say it was worse than doing nothing; between those who see in the Benetton photos of people with HIV/AIDS a kind of tragically beautiful pain and those who feel they constitute obscene voyeurism."
In years to come when academics ask whether the AIDS story was well told by the media Professor Tracey suspects the answer will be no. "This is particularly so in the popular end of the press which was so bound up with homophobia and plagues," he adds.
The social responsibility of the media is a recurring theme in Salford's department of media and performance headed by Ron Cook. Among the study programmes are postgraduate courses in television scriptwriting and documentary production. "In all our courses we get people to think about the impact of what they are doing," Dr Cook says. "In fiction they think about the world they will be writing for and in documentaries the responsibility of programme makers to their subjects is paramount."
The highly controversial CCTV video compilation Caught in the Act! which went on sale last November epitomises an ethical maze programme makers face.
Dr Cook recalls how Salford documentary students, whose work is regularly shown on Granada's Hitting Home slot, were filming in a Blackpool nightclub recently. A fracas broke out, much of which was captured on film and the legal implications of the incident were brought in to sharp focus. The students had to be very wary about what was later broadcast.
John McManus, head of the documentary production course, says technology means it is now possible to get much closer to reality in documentary film making. But at the same time digital editing makes the distortion of reality so much easier. "The practice of film making is as rigorous as any form of study you could name," Mr McManus says.
In portraying the AIDS story then, has the media been irresponsible in generating sensationalist misinformation for the sake of watching or reading figures? No, says Dr Cook. "To a large extent the media was responding to the scare story generated by the Government. They were merely following that lead."