rebecca puhl, Other, 09:47AM Mar 13, 2013
One needs to look no further than the mass media to see how socially acceptable weight stigma has become in our society. In television, films, and magazines, we see obese persons portrayed in stigmatizing ways, as the target of humor and ridicule, engaging in stereotypical behaviors like binge-eating or eating junk food, and rarely shown in positive social relationships or in serious roles. Indeed, over a decade of research has closely examined this, and evidence of weight bias is pervasive both in adult and children's media.
What may (or may not) be surprising, is that weight bias is also very present in news media. The news media has considerable power to influence public perceptions about key social and health issues, and obesity is no exception. Studies show that news coverage of obesity frequently blames people for their weight, and disproportionately emphasizes personal responsibility as solutions for obesity rather than broader societal and environmental contributors.
Even the visual content of news reports about obesity are stigmatizing. A couple of years ago my colleagues and I conducted a content analysis of over 400 news reports about obesity from popular news websites. We coded the images and photographs that accompanied news reports, and found that 72% of images portrayed overweight and obese persons in a stigmatizing manner (e.g., with an unflattering rear view of their excess weight, emphasizing isolated body parts like thighs, buttocks, and abdomen, portraying persons as headless "bare stomachs", eating unhealthy foods, being sedentary, and dressed in inappropriate clothing).1 This is important because we know that millions of Americans now rely on the internet for their news, and that many people report that seeing pictures and videos, rather than reading or hearing facts, gives them the best understanding of news events.2 We also know from our previous research that when people see stigmatizing images of obese persons, it worsens their attitudes and bias toward obese people.3
To continue this area of research, my colleagues and I recently published a new study, this time analyzing portrayals of obese persons in online news videos about obesity. We analyzed 371 online news videos about obesity from five major news websites, and coded how adults and youth were visually portrayed. Not only did we find that 65% of overweight/obese adults were depicted in a similarly stigmatizing manner, but even more - 77% - of overweight and obese children were portrayed in a negative, stereotypical manner. The findings were consistent regardless of the specific topic and content of the news report. In contrast, video portrayals of non-overweight individuals were significantly more positive and flattering.4
Clearly, we need to do a better job of reducing weight bias in the media. This is especially true in the news media, where there is an expectation of objective and fair news reporting. Instead of disseminating and reinforcing negative portrayals of obese persons, the news media can use its power to correct weight bias in their news content, and reduce stigma by using more appropriate images and videos. Professional news media organizations are frequently guided by established codes of ethics to ensure that they avoid stereotyping individuals and groups on the basis of characteristics like race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. It seems warranted for body weight to be included here as well.
In an effort to try to help remedy this issue, we have created a free resource at the Rudd Center that is available for use by the news media (and researchers, educators, and health care professionals), which provides a gallery of hundreds of non-stigmatizing images of obese adults and in children, portrayed in ways that challenge weight-based stereotypes. And we also have created over 80 b-roll videos that similarly portray obese persons in non-stigmatizing ways, which can be used by the news media in their reporting. We hope that this resource will help to improve standards of news reporting about obesity, and provide a means to portray individuals with dignity and respect, regardless of their body weight.
1 Heuer, C.,McClure, K., & Puhl, R.M. (2011). Stigmatizing Obese Persons on the Web: A visual content analysis of images in online reports of obesity. Journal of Health Communication, DOI: 10.1080/10810730.2011.561915.
2 Pew Research Center Publications. (2008c). Key news audiences now blend online and traditional sources. Retrieved from http://pewresearch.org/pubs/928/key-news-audiences-now-blendonline-and-traditional-sources
3 McClure, K., Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2011). Obesity in the news: Do photographic images of obese persons influence anti-fat attitudes? Journal of Health Communication, 16, 359–371.
4 Puhl, R.M., Peterson J.L., & DePierre, J., Luedicke, J. (2013). Headless, hungry, and unhealthy: A video content analysis of obese persons portrayed in online news. Journal of Health Communication. DOI:10.1080/10810730.2012.743631