Health Reporting That Mocks Itself

How does a publication destroy strong, objective health reporting? They can do it by running images that mock the people whom the reporting concerns. On July 5, USA Today devoted a full page to three important stories about obesity. The lead story was written by Nanci Hellmich, one of the most knowledgeable and consistently objective health and obesity reporters working today.

The story discussed how obesity treatment coverage is expanding in the new Obamacare world. In addition, they ran a story from a physician who treats many patients with obesity, and another about how simplistic “eat less, move more” advice is not enough when it comes to treating obesity. Together, the three stories occupied the entire back page of the Money section, a prominent placement showing USA Today’s commitment to reporting on a critical health issue.

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But someone forgot to tell the photo editor that commitment generally doesn’t include mocking people with the disease. As you can see in the attached photo of the page, two large images accompany the story: The first shows two women with obesity shot from behind  to draw attention to the size of their buttocks. The second shows a man with obesity drinking a large bottle of what appears to be soda.

The message of the reporting is that to reduce obesity and help people affected by obesity, we need to increase access to treatment. The message of the photos is that people with obesity are targets for derision because they somehow chose the condition affecting them.

The incongruity between the reporting and the photos is so striking, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s easy to cling to long-held beliefs about obesity. It’s easy to blame people when we know that personal responsibility plays a part. But we also know that many other factors are in play in this disease. Plus, blaming and shaming the people affected makes the problem worse.

Do we blame and shame people with high blood pressure or cervical cancer or diabetes? Are objective media stories about cervical cancer accompanied by pictures of people engaging in risky sexual behavior? Do photo editors choose pictures of corporate executives shouting at employees when discussing changes in insurance coverage for high blood pressure? No. If the stories in USA Today had been about  breast cancer, the photos would have been of cancer cells or a woman receiving an IV for chemotherapy from a compassionate healthcare provider. You can be sure it would not have been of two women without hair shot from behind.

What can we do to stop this stigmatization in the media? First, we can open our eyes to it. It’s there if we look. Second, we need to say that it’s not acceptable. When you see an unflattering portrayal, send a letter to the editor. Post a comment online. We are the people who can make such stigmatization unacceptable. Let the effort begin with those who understand obesity best.

Click here to read our post about Helmich’s reporting, where you can also find a link to her story in USA Today.

Angry, photograph © Daniela Hartmann / flickr

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