Picturing obesity: analyzing the social epidemiology of obesity conveyed through US news media images

Soc Sci Med. 2012 May;74(10):1544-51. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.01.021. Epub 2012 Mar 6.


News media coverage can affect how Americans view health policy issues. While previous research has investigated the text content of news media coverage of obesity, these studies have tended to ignore the photographs and other images that accompany obesity-related news coverage. Images can convey important messages about which groups in society are more or less affected by a health problem, and, in turn, shape public understanding about the social epidemiology of that condition. In this study, we analyzed the images of overweight and obese individuals in Time and Newsweek coverage over a 25-year period (1984-2009), and compared these depictions, which we characterize as representing the "news media epidemiology" of obesity, to data describing the true national prevalence of obesity within key populations of interest over this period. Data collected included descriptive features of news stories and accompanying images, and demographic characteristics of individuals portrayed in images. Over the 25-year period, we found that news magazines increasingly depicted non-whites as overweight and obese, and showed overweight and obese individuals less often performing stereotypical behaviors. Even with increasing representation of non-whites over time, news magazines still underrepresented African Americans and Latinos. In addition, the elderly were starkly underrepresented in images of the overweight and obese compared to actual prevalence rates. Research in other policy arenas has linked media depictions of the populations affected by social problems with public support for policies to combat them. Further research is needed to understand how news media depictions can affect public stigma toward overweight and obese individuals and public support for obesity prevention efforts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bibliometrics
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Media / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Minority Groups
  • Obesity*
  • Periodicals as Topic / statistics & numerical data
  • Photography
  • Public Opinion*
  • Social Class
  • Social Perception*
  • Stereotyping*
  • United States
  • Young Adult