Media on Obesity: Its Your Diet!

Clearly, judging by the daily media stories on obesity, one can hardly claim that this topic is being ignored.

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.

Edmonton, Alberta