Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD


June 25, 2012

In This Article

Health and the Media

The US public relies heavily on news media for health information, and this may become even more common in the expanding environment of consumer-oriented healthcare. Millions of Americans now obtain their news[1] and health information[2] from Internet sources, giving the news media far-reaching influence on public perceptions about important social and health issues.[3]

One of the most frequent health issues discussed in the news media is obesity. Now, more than ever before, Web-based news media render the topics of obesity and obesity-related policies more public.

When reporting on obesity-related topics, journalists often turn to scientists and research as sources for information. However, causal claims about obesity and how the media frame obesity in the news can influence public attitudes about both obesity and obese individuals. As healthcare professionals, providers, and educators, we need to pay attention to the extent to which news reports about obesity are accurate and free of bias, because this can influence the attitudes of our patients and the broader public about the causes of obesity, policy strategies for addressing this issue, and our own beliefs and behaviors that might contribute to or prevent obesity.

Obesity: An Individual or Societal Problem?

In recent years, researchers have studied the ways in which obesity is framed and presented in the news media, and some striking patterns have emerged. In thorough examinations of the content of news reports about obesity, these studies have consistently found that obesity is more often attributed to personal rather than societal causes, and that solutions are typically framed as being the responsibility of the individual rather than society.[4,5]

This holds true for childhood obesity as well. Hawkins and Linvill[6] found that most news stories about childhood obesity in US newspapers focus on individual, rather than societal, solutions and strategies for prevention. Barry and colleagues[7] analyzed the content of a 20% random sample of news stories on childhood obesity published in 18 national and regional news sources in the United States from 2000-2009. They found that news stories consistently mentioned individual behavioral changes as a solution to address childhood obesity.

Outside of the United States, similar findings have been documented in Canadian and Swedish news media. Childhood obesity is presented as an individual-level behavior and concern, with less attention given to actions to address obesity at the societal level.[8,9]

How do these findings affect public attitudes? News reports about obesity that include genetic or more complex explanations for obesity, compared with those emphasizing only personal behavior, tend to increase people's willingness to help obese persons[10] and reduce weight bias.[11] Conversely, when people are presented with information emphasizing personal responsibility and individual-level causes and solutions for obesity, bias toward obese individuals worsens.[11]


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