News Media Framing of Childhood Obesity in the United States from 2000 to 2009

An analysis of news coverage of childhood obesity suggests attention to the topic has already waned, and that media framing of the issue and its causes, which can influence public opinion, shifted over time and varied by media type.

Facing stubborn rates of childhood obesity, health officials have renewed efforts to slim down kids. But people are less likely to endorse government action on this problem if they think obesity is the result of child or parent behaviors, as most Americans (64%) do. Just 18 percent think systemic conditions, (i.e., access to healthy food, the food and beverage industry, etc.) contribute to the problem. Research shows that public views are influenced by both the amount of news coverage and media framing of an issue. In this first study to comprehensively analyze news media coverage of childhood obesity, researchers examined a random 20 percent sample of news items on this issue that appeared from 2000 through 2009 in 18 media outlets representing geographic and ideologic diversity. The content of 806 stories was analyzed.

Key Findings:

  • Coverage rose from 2001 through 2003, plateaued, and then declined in 2008 and 2009, consistent with the pattern of “issue attention cycles.”
  • About an equal number of stories attributed childhood obesity to behaviors versus system-level causes. But this varied by media type: news magazines were “significantly more likely” than newspapers or television news to mention behavioral causes.
  • All types of news media most often mentioned behavioral changes as solutions. But newspapers were significantly more likely than television news to mention system-level solutions.
  • Coverage of how childhood obesity relates to the food and beverage industry increased, dropped off, and then started to climb at the end of the period.

The authors note that television news gave significantly less attention to story angles related to the food and beverage industry, raising concerns that ad spending by that industry is influencing content.