B.D. Colen, science editor and columnist for Newsday, was listening to the radio in New York recently after three health-care workers who had been dealing with AIDS patients were diagnosed as having the AIDS virus in their blood.

In deep honeyed tones, the radio reporter was explaining that there should be no panic but that health officials now believed there was a new route of transmission for AIDS.

"I was sick listening to it," Colen said. "It was a nonstory; the workers were not following {official} guidelines for handling AIDS cases."

For Colen and others covering the AIDS epidemic it was another case of someone in the news media not getting it quite right -- a moment when months of excellent coverage by organizations like Newsweek or the Los Angeles Times are lost to a less careful reporter confused about the medical issue of the moment.

"Essentially, the media is in danger of getting AIDS," said Colen. "Our credibility may live or die on this issue."

If Colen's tone is more urgent than many of his colleagues', most reporters following the AIDS epidemic say the story is one of the most difficult they have covered.

The toughest problem, most say, is how to inform people without scaring them to death, how to stop the spread of the disease without panicking the public.

Walking this line is all the more difficult because medical experts differ about whether AIDS seems more terrifying than it is, like the swine flu scare about a decade ago, or whether it is the bubonic plague of the 20th century. Politicians have weighed in to offer solutions that range from money to quarantines with blood tests at the nation's borders. And each medical discovery brings hope, fear and confusion as reporters try to sift through highly technical results of biochemical or medical research.

"The biggest breakthrough may sound like gibberish," said Henry Tenenbaum, who covers medical issues for WRC-TV in Washington. "You have to rely on your contacts in the medical community to point you to the good stories."

But relying on experts is also a shaky foundation for media coverage. Big names in the medical community disagree.

At the Third International Conference on AIDS here yesterday, for example, journalists heard polio vaccine developer Dr. Albert Sabin say that the epidemic has been overblown in the media.

Yet, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has said AIDS will become "the most devastating epidemic since the Black Death," which killed about a third of the world's population in the 14th century.

And what may appear hopeful at the early stages of research may turn out to be useless or even dangerous once the experiments are completed.

"There is a syndrome that we call 'data by press conference,' " said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The problem is that most science discoveries are made in increments, not eurekas, and the press coverage of details means that a drug may offer hope one day and despair the next year.

Fauci cited early studies of a drug called Suramin, which was announced as showing some promise. While scientists were in the slow process of determining whether it was useful, "people thought we were withholding information and treatment from them."

"But when the studies were completed, we found out it was dangerous," he said.

If the media seem to give too much coverage to incremental developments, it may be that for veterans of the AIDS story, the sense of impending doom can be overwhelming. Thus, there is sometimes an evangelical quality about their mission.

"I think we who write about AIDS in the press have a public education responsibility, I really do," said Marlene Cimons, who has been covering the issue almost exclusively for 2 1/2 years for the Los Angeles Times. "If that makes us participants in the news, well, so be it . . . . I think we should communicate as graphically and explicitly as possible what about the behavior causes it."

The process of educating the public often begins at home for most journalists. A number of journalists interviewed this week at the AIDS conference said they had difficulty getting editors at their establishment papers and networks to take interest in the deadly disease or to understand how it could spread.

The language used to describe gay sex was distasteful to many editors, to whom the disease seemed to involve "them, not us" before researchers began to track AIDS through the blood supply, to drug abusers, to children of AIDS carriers and to the heterosexual community.

Writers used euphemisms for anal intercourse like "exchanging bodily fluids" -- a term that many reporters think merely confused readers.

"I used the term 'exchanging bodily fluids' like everyone else, and I didn't even know what they meant," said Cimons, adding that her editors now demand that the known causes of the disease's spread be explained more clearly.

The squeamishness about details extends to advertising. Television networks still refuse to run condom advertisements, although the word condom is not censored from news or entertainment programs.

Ellen Levine, editor-in-chief of Woman's Day, said that when she began running such advertisements in her magazine three years ago, the men in the advertising department were strongly opposed.

"My feeling at the time, and it continues to be my feeling now, is that the reason they did not want to take the advertising is that men are not crazy about condoms," she said. "They really did not want the readers of Woman's Day to sit out there and decide that their husbands needed to go back to condoms."

There are some journalists and physicians who suggest that because of the limits of information on sexual matters in the establishment media, the public has begun to doubt some of the information they read or see on television.

"Half the time it almost doesn't matter what you say," said Susan Spencer of CBS News. "People think they know better than you do . . . .

"We have two problems -- convincing people that casual contact doesn't give you AIDS and convincing people that heterosexual sex can give you AIDS," she said.

Spencer said that the cause of the problem is somewhat obvious, however. After numerous stories about the fact that casual contact with AIDS victims cannot transmit the disease, "then you've got the sight of these D.C. policemen wearing rubber gloves while they're arresting these {gay} protesters. The viewer figures, 'Hey, they must know something I don't know.' "