Media on Obesity: Its Your Diet!Monday, May 19, 2008
But despite the barrage of reports, does the media really contribute to a better public understanding of obesity? What is being reported? And perhaps more importantly, what is not being reported?
I don’t have stats for Canadian media, but a recent study from Australia, if applicable to Canada, certainly raises a few flags.
Catrioni Bonfiglioli from the University of Sydney conducted an analysis of 50 representative TV news and current affairs items about overweight and obesity broadcast by five free-to-air television channels in New South Wales between May and October 2005.
According to the results published last year in the Medical Journal of Australia, the researchers found that the media tends to overwhelmingly focus on obesity as a problem of individuals with poor nutrition as the major cause.
I found the type of story themes noteworthy and have therefore copied them here:
Modern medical miracles: e.g Lapband surgery saves lives
Surprise or quirky news: e.g. wine may help with weight loss
Individual success stories: e.g. workplace weight-loss winner
Hunting the Holy Grail of weight loss: e.g. a diet that works
Danger in the familiar: e.g. coffee more fattening than a Big Mac
Health scare: e.g. obesity epidemic a danger to all
David and Goliath battle: e.g. McDonald’s sues activists for libel
Debunking myths: e.g. ten weight-loss myths debunked
The elixir of life: e.g. eating less and moving more is the key to living longer
Big bucks – obesity is big business: e.g. $3 mill spent on children’s survey
Government in bed with business: e.g. US government acts to stop fast food industry being sued over obesity
Celebrity: e.g. sportsman calls for activity to stop childhood obesity
Food fight: conflicts: e.g. ABC celebrates debate on food issues
Junk food TV advertising to blame: e.g. health experts and parents attack junk food advertising
Parents to blame: e.g. parents of overweight children accused of neglegt
Pester power: e.g. battle to get kids to eat healthy
Don’t brand fat children: e.g. labeling children as obese is cruel
Obesity is genetic: e.g. obesity runs in the family
The most common factor blamed for obesity was nutrition (72% of items) while inactivity (including computer games) was blamed in only 14% of items.
Individuals were blamed in 66%, industry in 8%, and society in 6%.
Overall, the general tenor of the media reports were on obesity essentially as a result of individual lifestyles and presented solutions that focused on personal responsibility for individual change – i.e. the rhetoric of “choice”.
Whether intended or unintended, clearly the Australian media reports take the spotlight off the idea that government and industry may share a responsibility for reshaping the obesogenic environment.
The focus on individual nutrition sure takes the focus off structural issues such as need to work long hours in sedentary jobs, poor urban planning, long commutes, lack of public transportation and other issues that may be key to solving the obesity epidemic, but are less comfortable to policy makers (and other stakeholders) than simply blaming the “victims”.
By promoting the idea of individual responsibility and individual solutions, the media certainly plays its part in promoting the widespread bias and discrimination against people with overweight and obesity by choosing which topics to report about and which to ignore.
I can only wonder if an analysis of the Canadian press’ reporting on obesity would reveal similar results.