SUPERSIZED BIAS II: Executive Summary

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Diet and obesity continue to weigh heavily on the minds of Americans. Those concerns have carried over to the news media, but the coverage takes on a strong anti-business slant, as if businesses and advertisers were responsible for obesity. Earlier this year, the MRC’s Business & Media Institute released a study showing a significant anti-corporate trend in the major media’s food reporting. Journalists are providing more coverage of individual responsibility as a cause of obesity, but this report documents extensive bias and misinformation in media coverage of the issue.

     The original BMI study analyzed all 205 news stories about obesity published in TheNew York TimesUSA Today, or aired on the three broadcast network evening newscasts and nighttime magazine shows between May 1, 2003 and April 30, 2004. This new analysis covers 97 stories in the same media and spans the six-month period between May 1, 2004 and October 31, 2004. Among the new findings:

    ABC News Still the Most Biased, Times still skewed: ABC aired seven stories that blamed business practices for obesity, compared with just three that highlighted personal responsibility. This continues its record from theBusiness & Media Institute’s earlier study where they covered 16 stories, and 15 of them blamed business practices for causing obesity. The New York Times stories continued to be skewed against business and the free market. However, Timesstaffers did give some coverage to personal responsibility as a reason for weight gain.

    Anti-Corporate Activists Still Front and Center, Businesses Still Bypassed:Journalists relied on small activist groups to portray a slanted view of the obesity debate. Fifty-six percent (44 times) of the experts quoted were anti-industry, while only 44 percent of those quoted were pro-industry experts (34 times). Two of those stories criticized the very industry experts they were quoting.

    Personal Choice Still Favored Over Government-Imposed Solutions: On a positive note, nearly half of the stories in our study (48 percent) focused on personal solutions to obesity. More than 30 percent (30 stories) had arguments for new burdens on business such as regulations or a “fat tax.” Eight of ABC’s nine stories presented government involvement in the “obesity epidemic” as positive.

    Journalists Can’t Get Their Statistics Straight: Several stories overstated childhood obesity rates as being nearly 100 percent higher than they actually were. For example, USA Today reporter Nanci Hellmich cited three different numbers in a two-month span. Those numbers ranged from 16.5 percent (nearly correct) to more than 30 percent.

    Activists’ Agendas Still Hidden: Anti-corporate activists were treated as unbiased “experts” in nearly every obesity story. This mirrors results from the previous study and represents a problem in the media. The liberal Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), for instance, was called a “consumer group” and food industry critic Marion Nestle was portrayed as a “nutrition professor,” even when she was criticizing the industry for providing healthier food options. Conservative groups didn’t receive the same treatment. For example, a conservative organization was labeled as “an advocacy group funded by the food industry.”

    Free Market Largely Ignored: Businesses continue to respond to consumer demand for healthier foods, but the media typically ignore them. Only 18 percent of news stories (just 18 out of 97) discussed ways that corporate America is addressing the obesity crisis. Ironically, this represents an improvement from our previous study. At the same time, it shows a media that pays little attention to free market solutions.

     This report repeats the Business & Media Institute’s call for better news coverage of obesity and recommends three ways to accomplish it. First, news organizations must do a better job investigating and reporting the agenda and track record of advocacy groups such as CSPI. Second, balanced reporting requires journalists to include an appropriate response from either the targeted corporation or industry association along with any attacks on that group. Finally, while it is easy for reporters to build stories around activists’ demands for government intervention, it is important to balance those with recognition of the principles and benefits of America’s free market system.