Joe Nadglowski at ECO2018

Obesity: Information or Stigmatization from the Media?

Public understanding of obesity is fraught by misinformation and stigma. But the subject of weight and health captures public attention like nothing else. So the media faces an ethical choice when reporting on obesity.  Yesterday, CEO Joe Nadglowski of the Obesity Action Coalition put his finger on it. Will journalists promote information or stigmatization?

This became the core question for a Media Masterclass at ECO2018 yesterday. The masterclass featured presentations by Nadglowski, Ximena Ramos Salas, and Ted Kyle.

Stigma and Misinformation

On one hand, Nadglowski described portrayals of people living with obesity that are often demeaning and disrespectful. More often than not, imagery promotes stereotypes of faceless body parts. Rear ends, bellies, and gluttony are the dominant visual themes. When you start with pictures that convey moral disgust, no amount of thoughtful words can turn things around.

Truthfully, media outlets do not simply fabricate the misinformation they perpetuate. Salas explained. Her research shows that they are often relying on simplistic and misleading public health narratives. With those narratives in play, going down a rabbit hole of misinformation comes naturally.

Kyle explained further. Rocket science might be complicated, but obesity is much more daunting. It’s the result of complex systems interacting and adapting to resist efforts to overcome it. So you might cut down on fat in the food supply. And then you find carbs rise up to fill the gap. Tax sugar seems like a good idea. But consumers can find other sources of cheap calories. Social psychology holds sway over individual choices.

Simply eat less and move more? That cartoon solution for obesity doesn’t match up with reality.

Clarity and Public Service

Fortunately, the media have shown that they can provide clarity and good information the public sorely needs. Nadglowski said they provide a great service for an eager audience when they put a face on the problem. They are beginning to use more appropriate imagery and more respectful language.

They can enlighten and educate about the true nature of obesity, said Salas. Just taking care to distinguish between myths, presumptions, and facts would offer a big step forward according to Kyle.

In other words, we have a real hunger for better information about obesity. Perhaps,with help from advocates and scientists, the media can step up to fill the gap.

Click here for Nadglowski’s presentation, here for Salas’s, and here for Kyle’s.

Joe Nadglowski at ECO2018, photograph © Ted Kyle

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May 25, 2018