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

Sarah E. Gollust, Ijeoma Eboh, Colleen L. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1544-1551
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Healthy Eating Research Program ( 68051 ) and financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania . We also acknowledge expert research assistance by Jeffrey Then and Hauchie Pang. Earlier versions of this study were presented at the Academy Health Disparities Interest Group Meeting and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Sciences Seminar.


  • Ethnicity
  • Media
  • Obesity
  • Policy
  • Public opinion
  • USA


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