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Can Editors and Journalists Give Obesity a Make-Over, Please?

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Obesity's in the headlines again. The usual stuff - tax carbonated drinks, ban junk food and prevent food outlets from being positioned near schools. Every day I receive Google news alerts drawing my attention to articles from around the world containing the word obesity. Obesity is big news. The same story is picked up and re-reported by TV stations, newspapers, journals and social media sites. It makes for disheartening reading.

In a recent paper in Obesity Review some researchers at the Department of Media and Communication in Leicester looked at how obesity is defined in various media outlets, including analysis of journalistic news values, political leaning and style of media (tabloid versus serious), emotion-eliciting language, readers' comments and the sort of photographs used to accompany obesity related articles. The primary observation following their research was the extent to which coverage focused upon the "problematization of obesity in news stories".

Obesity was most commonly found to be discussed in the news in terms of personal failure. The emphasis on individual responsibility and concomitant moral indignation of many stories could, the researchers, argue sway the public "to favour policy solutions which aim to change and punish individual behaviours". This emphasis on individual responsibility contrasts with an alternative view of obesity as being an environmental problem which arose with the industrialisation of food influencing its availability and affordability and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle which makes physical activity less of a necessity for activities of daily living.

The fact that obesity stories are frequently written in emotive language that can elicit disgust and engender spiteful comments (from presumably slim) readers, leads to obese people being ashamed to admit they are seeking help. This is especially true when they choose to have weight loss surgery. One of our patients keen to share her delight after losing 3 stones following a gastric band operation saw her story appear under the banner "Is this the laziest dieter in Britain?" Another of our patients appeared on a TV show and was given the customary ill informed and shallow treatment. I wrote at the time "It really does annoy me that these look-at-me-I'm-so-gorgeous-I-can't-understand-why-there-are-so-many-fat-people-in-the-world-presenters dismiss a safe and effective intervention for chronically obese individuals who have exhausted all other weight loss solutions". The presenter's prejudice was palpable.

There is tremendous opportunity for the media to play a helpful role in tackling obesity. Here are just a few suggestions:
(i) Let's have more positive "success" stories. Less stigmatization and moral disapprobation would encourage people to be open about their weight struggles.
(ii) More pan national coverage. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's only in Britain that we have a problem.
(iii) Portray positive eating behaviours in TV soaps and programmes. Let's have young people on TV who think it's cool to walk, cycle, eat healthily most of the time, indulge occasionally and who generally have an uncomplicated relationship with food.
(iv) Get away from simplistic notions of "good food" and "bad food". A balanced diet can encompass every type of food, especially when an individual is physically active.
(v) Stop using pictures of super morbidly obese people for every obesity story. Journalistic and editorial choices have led most people to associate the term obese with the tiny number of people who are gigantic. It is not helpful. A quarter of our adult population is obese. The sooner we drop the blame culture the better.

1 Atanasova D, Koteyko N, Gunter B Obesity in the news: directions for future research. Obesity Review 2012: 13; 554-559