SUPERSIZED BIAS: Executive Summary

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More and more Americans are obsessed with their weight, and the news media have responded with an abundance of stories about food and fat. But there’s more to the fat story than just giving the public more news they can use. Some anti-corporate activists have seized upon the public’s worries about weight to bash the companies that feed America. They argue that the fattening of America is less the result of poor personal choices than poor behavior by U.S. businesses, and that the “obesity epidemic” can best be cured through a diet of new taxes, more regulations, and a flood of lawyer-enriching lawsuits.

     So how successful have these radical activists been at getting their agenda taken seriously by the major media? To find out, researchers with the MRC’s Business & Media Institute analyzed all 205 news stories about obesity published in The New York TimesUSA Today, or aired on the three broadcast network evening newscasts and nighttime magazine shows between May 1, 2003 and April 30, 2004.

Among the major findings:

    More Blame for Food Sellers than Food Eaters: About half the news stories debated the causes of obesity, and a large majority of these (66) blamed America’s weight problems on the behavior of food corporations rather than on the personal behavior of those who eat the food (just 26 stories). Only 11 stories treated readers or viewers to a balanced debate over the causes of obesity.

    ABC and The New York Times Were the Most Biased: ABC aired 15 stories blaming business practices for obesity, compared with just one story highlighting personal responsibility. New York Times stories were similarly skewed against business by a margin of 20 to two. CBS, NBC and USA Today were much more balanced.

    Shunning Companies, Pumping Anti-Corporate Activists: By a three-to-two margin, news stories featured more quotes from a relatively small group of anti-corporate activists led by a Naderite organization called Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) than all of the spokespersons for the industries being attacked.

    Camouflaging the Crusaders: No news story applied an ideological label to any anti-corporate activist, although USA Today was careful to stick a “conservative” tag on the Family Research Council’s Patrick Trueman. Instead, reporters promoted CSPI as “a health advocacy group” (ABC), “a Washington-based consumer group” (USA Today) or “a consumer advocacy group” (New York Times).

    Personal Choice Favored Over Government-Imposed Solutions: Despite the media’s bias in favor of blaming corporations for obesity, a plurality of stories (80, or 39 percent) focused on personal solutions to obesity. But one-fourth of all stories (49) included arguments for new burdens on business such as regulations or a “fat tax” on some products, and another fifth of the total (39) discussed milder ways of putting pressure on companies, such as lawsuits or the shame of negative publicity.

    But the Free Market Was Practically Ignored: Even as activists claimed that cynical corporate marketing really determines what’s on Americans’ plates, the marketplace was responding to consumer desires for healthier products and smaller portions. But less than 10 percent of news stories (just 19 out of 205) even hinted at how the free market is already helping to solve America’s obesity problem.

     The report concludes with three recommendations for better coverage: First, news organizations must do a better job of investigating and reporting the agenda and track record of advocacy groups such as CSPI, and not falsely present them as sources of objective and unbiased information. Second, fairness requires that when outside groups criticize big business, journalists strive to include in their story an appropriate response from either the targeted corporation or an industry association.

     Finally, while it is easy for reporters to build stories around activists’ demands for more government intervention, it is important to balance those demands with a recognition of the principles and benefits of America’s free market system. Without government lifting a finger, consumers will inevitably reward companies that provide the most desirable products for the best price, and any businesses that fail to meet the public’s expectations will be punished in the marketplace. That’s as true for the food business as any other, but that truism was lacking in most of the media coverage we examined over the past year