Objective: Eating disorder (ED) specialists increasingly see anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as complex mental illnesses with both genetic and social roots. The public, however, tends to view EDs more simply as a manifestation of personal or social problems among female, white, young women. This disconnect potentially prevents timely ED diagnosis and reinforces a stigma that limits treatment availability. We examine the presentation of EDs in daily newspapers, an important contributor to shaping public perception of EDs.
Methods: We analyze 1 year of coverage about EDs by seven daily U.S. newspapers (252 articles), focusing on the messages conveyed about epidemiology, etiology, severity and treatment.
Results: The highest proportion of articles about EDs (48%) ran in arts and entertainment sections. Articles primarily covered those who are female, young and white, and mentioned mainly environmental causal factors. Only 8% of patient profiles discussed treatment and recovery within a medical context.
Conclusion: News coverage rarely presents EDs as complex medical phenomena, but rather simplifies and sensationalizes these conditions.
Practice implications: Educators would benefit from recognizing the news media's role in shaping public perceptions of EDs in ways that differ from clinical perspectives, potentially limiting diagnosis and treatment. Three communication improvements are suggested.