Media Credited ‘Let’s Move’ With Obesity Drop, Ignore Flawed CDC Data

Reuters reports childhood obesity may not be declining after all.

Michelle Obama’s highly touted “Let’s Move” campaign might not have its first victory after all. Despite healthy living advocates touting a decline in obesity among preschoolers, that CDC claim of a 43 percent decline in a decade might not be at all true.

In fact, the data is so vague that the obesity rate may actually have increased, according to Reuters. ABC and CBS praised the statistic as a victory for Obama’s healthy living campaign when it came out, but failed to mention on news programming the evening of March 16 or the morning of March 17 that the statistic was called into question.

A Reuters article gave the bad news on March 16: “If the news last month that the prevalence of obesity among American preschoolers had plunged 43 percent in a decade sounded too good to be true, that's because it probably was.” That 43 percent number was based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from Feb. 25.

Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign was among the groups that celebrated the original statistic. In a statement on behalf of her campaign, she said that this decline was a result of “healthy habits” becoming “the new norm for our kids.”

Broadcast networks were quick to jump on this bandwagon. On March 2, “CBS This Morning” co-host Vinita Nair cited the statistic without question, even offering as an explanation that “researchers say kids are eating more nutritious food and getting more exercise in day care and they’re consuming fewer sugary drinks.”

The First Lady also made an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on March 6 to promote the Affordable Care Act. During that interview anchor Robin Roberts cited the statistic as an example of a victory for Obama.

“I think the first interview I did with you as first lady was for your Let’s Move campaign. And there’s now some actual data that is showing that childhood obesity, for the first time, is on the decline,” Roberts said. Obama responded that her campaign had helped to create a “new norm for what a healthy environment looks like.” "the journalists who originally praised the study results have failed to acknowledge questions about the CDC data as of yet."

This wasn’t the first time that the networks have promoted Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign without question. On Aug. 26, NBC’s “Today” backed the program as possibly helping people to think “differently about food.”

In August 2013, when school districts across the country began dropping a government imposed lunch program due to children refusing to eat the food, the networks ignored the fact that the Let’s Move campaign had fought for the program’s adoption. However, the networks had noted that connection in February 2013 before the program was implemented.

Other media outlets embraced the CDC data, not just the networks. The Washington Post, on Feb. 25, promoted the study, and credited the Let’s Move campaign with having a part to play in making that happen. Forbes, however, provided a comprehensive breakdown of the data on Feb. 27, showing that the data was vague enough that it could be interpreted several different ways.

Reuters explained that the 43 percent number is in question because of large margin of error rates acknowledged by the CDC, as well as the CDC’s admission that “there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012."

According to Reuters, “even an increase [in preschool obesity] is a statistical possibility.”

The CDC has released inaccurate obesity studies before. In 2005, the government agency announced that 365,000 deaths annually could be blamed on obesity. It later revised that number down to 112,000 and then down to 26,000. Despite the media promoting that study as illustrating the dangers of obesity, the CDC also said that 34,000 people died from being underweight.

— Mike Ciandella is Research Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Mike Ciandella on Twitter.