A Beef with the Media Over Obesity Bias

     The holidays are over and millions have resolved to lose the weight we just gained. As we head into the new year, the major media will make you think twice about the whole concept of holiday stuffing. How do we know? Our analysis shows that this is the medias pattern.

     Weve analyzed how the major media treated the issue of obesity for the last year and a half. The result? The major media are more likely to turn the holiday season into open season on the food industry than into a time to eat, drink, and be merry.

     Its the new battle of the bulge. Anti-corporate activists have seized upon Americas worries about weight to launch a campaign against the companies that produce the food that feeds us all. They blame U.S. businesses for the obesity epidemic and say it can best be cured through a diet of new taxes, more regulations, and lawyer-enriching lawsuits. One well-known activist even complained that healthier versions of traditional snack foods were bad because they were foods we shouldnt be eating at all.

     These activists have succeeded at getting their agenda out because the major media have done a poor job covering the issue. The Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute analyzed all news stories about obesity published in The New York Times and USA Today or aired on the three broadcast network evening news shows for one-and-a-half years. The first analysis was from May 1, 2003 through April 30, 2004. The second covered the next six months and, unfortunately, shows the media havent changed their tune much.

     In the first study, about half of the 205 stories debated the causes of obesity. Of these, a large majority (64 percent) blamed our nations weight problems on food companies rather than on personal behavior. While this has improved in our second study, its still a problem. The concept of personal responsibility still hasnt taken hold in U.S. newsrooms.

     For example, on the March 9, 2004 World News Tonight, ABC reporter Lisa Stark linked the food industrys behavior with poor health: Its estimated 64 percent of Americans weigh too much. That increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some form of cancer. Those who help people lose weight say theyre not surprised by the new numbers. The food industry spends $34 billion a year to market its products. The notion that food industry advertising causes obesity is a key argument of the anti-corporate activists.

     A couple weeks earlier, on the Feb. 24 CBS Evening News, Elizabeth Kaledin framed an entire story around a negative report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest charging that childrens menus at restaurants such as Outback and Red Lobster were dominated by unhealthy choices. Move over, McNuggets, Kaledin crowed. Theres a new food villain in town. New research finds kids meals at many popular restaurant chains are loaded with more fat and calories than the average fast-food fare.

     Story after story cited food experts who criticized the food industry for making, of all things, what we want to eat. The media compounded the problem by treating these talking heads like disinterested bystanders, not activists or experts pushing only one view.

     No doubt, obesity is an important health problem. But out of 302 stories, only one report tried to put the alarming statistics into context. Until 1998, a 5-foot-5 woman who weighed 164 pounds was considered normal, USA Todays Nancy Hellmich and Rita Rubin explained in a June 16, 2003 article. Then the official body mass index (weight/height) criteria changed, and all of a sudden she was considered overweight if she weighed 150 pounds. The guidelines labeled another 29 million people as overweight. Now, almost 65 percent of Americans weigh too much.

     Unfortunately, Hellmich was one of several reporters who couldnt decide which statistics to use for childhood obesity. An assortment of health and obesity stories claim everything from 15 percent to more than 30 percent of children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 are overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the actual number is about 16 percent, or about half what is claimed in several stories.

     This combination of poor facts, a reliance on activists to set the agenda, and a strong anti-business approach is a recipe for continued bad coverage of obesity. Its time for the media to shape up and try feeding us more balanced coverage.

     For more information on the two obesity studies please go to:

Supersized Bias II
May-October 2004

Big Medias Role In Covering And Promoting the Obesity Debate

    Herman Cain, former president and chairman of Godfather's Pizza, Inc., former senate candidate in Georgia, and former CEO of the National Restaurant Association, is now the national chairman of the Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute. Dan Gainor is director of the Business & Media Institute (www.businessandmedia.org).

This op-ed ran in the January 7, 2005 edition of Investors Business Daily.