Images of Illness

A study examining the influence of imagery associating type 2 diabetes with different causalities and racial groups found that subtle changes in media messages can change public opinion about federal funding for treatment and prevention.

Participants were randomly assigned to read a news article about type 2 diabetes. The articles differed in causal frame, attributing diabetes to genetic, behavioral, socioeconomic or environmental causes or to no cause, and differed in whether they included images of a Black woman, a White woman or a glucose testing device.

Participants who read an article attributing diabetes to genetic causes or social factors were more likely to support government spending, while participants who read an article on behavioral factors were more likely to attribute negative stereotypes to people with diabetes. Those who saw a picture of a Black woman with their article were less likely to ascribe negative stereotypes than those who saw a picture of a White woman, but those who saw a picture of glucose testing equipment were the least likely to do so. There were no significant interactive effects between the causal language and the images.

Discussing the behavioral causes of diabetes may perpetuate negative stereotypes, but pointing out the social determinants that shape behaviors may help alleviate stereotype attribution.