In Public Health, Not All Publicity Is Created Equal

The amount of media coverage related to obesity is staggering. Today, one can hardly watch the morning news without hearing stories about the latest predictor of excessive weight-gain or seeing shocking b-roll of the “average” overweight American.  While this increased attention has made weight-related disease a major societal concern, evidence suggests it has simultaneously augmented the prejudices toward obese individuals.

The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity recently completed a content analysis of videos that accompany online news to observe how overweight individuals are currently portrayed by the media. Out of 371 videos from five major news stations, 65% were found to stigmatize overweight/obese adults. Specifically, videos tended to show obese persons gorging on junk food or being inactive, and the camera usually focused in on only their lower bodies. In addition, obese individuals were less likely to be shown in business attire (or even fully-clothed, for that matter) in comparison to non-overweight adults. Peterson, Depierre and Luedicke (2013) argued that these unflattering angles and the videos’ narrow depiction of stereotypical behaviors both dehumanize overweight individuals and fuel connotations associated with obesity.

Considering peoples’ tendency to equate seeing with believing, Peterson et al. make a valid point. These visuals presented by reputable news sources are thought to be accurate and unbiased. Of course, as Peterson et al. divulge (2013), this is often not the case. Unfortunately, people might view the media content as a reliable representation of all obese individuals without recognizing possible framing effects that overgeneralize and dramatize the disease. In such a way, some news stories become a vehicle for spreading obesity stereotypes—ingraining assumptions like individuals are overweight because they are lazy and lack self-control (Puhl, Schwartz, & Brownell, 2005) and in extreme cases, inciting discrimination. In order to eradicate this increasing stigmatization, the Rudd Center has compiled a database of images and videos that show overweight individuals in a variety of settings (e.g., in the workplace, out with friends, gardening, or taking a walk through a park). Databases like these may not only redefine how others perceive obese individuals, but also encourage more supportive behavior during every day social interaction and treatment.

After reading this content analysis, I find myself further questioning the benefits of media attention for public health crises. There is a part of me that feels that the public health impact of the obesity epidemic, in particular, demands approaches that grab attention when provoking a nation to take action. So perhaps using these shocking images is just a way for the networks to make the signal stand out from the noise of the other news headlines? In the end, it appears that the shock publicity backfires. If there is a potential for viewers to take a victim-blaming approach in response to dehumanizing and stereotypical visuals, there needs to be just as much concern for maintaining a fair representation of story subjects as there is for trying to gain an audience’s attention.

On a personal note, as a former radio reporter, I always saw news as a tremendous community outlet and an especially valuable tool for communicating recent science to the general public. Our radio station often highlighted compelling research on the perils of snacking or the prevalence of Type II diabetes within the local school system. While these pieces were intended primarily to inform, I never considered how startling leads or accompanying photos may have intentionally casted a negative stigma over a group of individuals especially in need of community encouragement. I believe in the powerful impact other people have on our decisions and self-perception. Thus, due to the media’s ability to dictate cultural opinion, journalists covering societal weight issues should make a conscious effort both to invoke empathy and concern within the population while assuring a more humanistic portrayal of the individuals affected by this disease.

Puhl, R. M. Peterson, J. L, Depierre, J A. Luedicke, J. (2013). Headless, hungry and unhealthy: A video content analysis of obese persons portrayed in online news. Journal of Health Communication, 0:1-17.

Brownell, K.D., Schwartz, M.B., Puhl, R.M. & Rudd, L. (Eds.), Weight bias: Nature, consequences, and remedies (pp. 165-174). New York: Guilford Press.

By: Elise Hartley