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Obesity Coverage in Black Newspapers Mostly Negative, University of Missouri Study Finds

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Why my campaign to promote quality and relevant science news in the Black Press matters:

Real outcomes are at stake. Science Literacy is Social Justice!

Obesity Coverage in Black Newspapers is Mostly Negative, MU Study Finds

Negative health stories could discourage men in the African-American community from taking action

Feb. 14, 2013
Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst,, 573-882-6217

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— Obesity rates have increased dramatically in the last few decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau,  while African Americans are only 13 percent of the total population, 82 percent of black women are overweight or obese compared to nearly 60 percent of white women, and more than 70 percent of black males are classified as overweight or obese. A new study from the University of Missouri School of Journalism shows that American newspapers, and specifically newspapers geared toward an African-American audience, frame stories on obesity in a negative way. Hyunmin Lee, who performed her research while a doctoral student at MU, says this negative framing could have damaging effects on African Americans looking to lose weight.

“Previous research has shown that African Americans do not respond positively to negative news stories about obesity and health issues,” said Lee, who is now an assistant professor at Saint Louis University. “Our study shows that the majority of obesity news stories are written in a negative tone, mainly attributing individual responsibilities to overcome obesity, which means many African Americans in need of weight loss could be discouraged by what they are reading in newspapers, instead of being inspired by positive success stories about overcoming obesity or other health problems.”

Lee and Maria Len-Rios, an associate professor in the MU School of Journalism, examined 35 newspapers, 23 of them African-American newspapers, and analyzed nearly 400 news stories about obesity. They found that nearly all of those stories were written with negative tones emphasizing individual responsibilities for overcoming obesity. News stories with negative tones include stories about high obesity rates among African Americans and health issues that are caused by obesity.

“The majority of the obesity news stories we analyzed focused on individual responsibilities and solutions that may not be achievable for many African Americans,” Lee said. “Even the stories that offered advice on ways to fight obesity were framed negatively. That advice was heavily attributed to individual responsibilities such as exercise and diet control, which are messages that are often ineffective at motivating African Americans to be healthy for socio-economic and cultural reasons.”

Lee encourages newspapers, particularly ones with primarily African-American audiences, to write health stories with positive tones. Instead of stories about increasing obesity rates, she says stories promoting promising new research or positive trends in African-American health would be much more effective in motivating African Americans to make healthier choices.

“Newspapers focused on writing health stories that only emphasize individual responsibilities are missing the bigger picture of social responsibility,” Lee said. “To make a constructive impact on the community, health stories that mention societal responsibilities are a necessity while avoiding advice solely focused on individual responsibility. This is because many health news stories do not consider that their audiences may live in food deserts or lack the facilities or ability to exercise safely where they live. Telling someone they have to do things that they physically cannot do to be healthy can have very discouraging and counterproductive effects on an audience that needs as much encouragement as possible.”

Lee and Len-Rios’ study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Health Communication.


One of my biggest objections to how science and health science is presented in the Black Press is the frame of how science news is presented. It often uses a voice designed to push people’s buttons – of distrust or pain. I’ve often wondered if the desired outcome most science or health related stories are to prevent participation as opposed to open people up to opportunities. I find myself perennial frustrated, but this study is right on time.  It is proof positive that the NABJ Proposal: Health Science Reporting for Under-represented audiences is much needed. The deadline for the second round of proposals for the National Association of Black Journalists is Friday, February 22, 2013. This will definitely be included in my revised proposal.

If you’re interested in supporting this effort to promote and expand quality science news reporting to Ethnic Media markets, please feel free to leave a comment.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. TinaF 9:36 pm 02/20/2013

    But there is some truth the social responsibility part. How is an African-American woman in a disadvantaged community make better choices if those choices are not present? I worked in a depressed neighborhood. I can tell you there were no grocery stores within walking distance. The only store was a gas station. Where they going to get fresh vegetables? Do they even know how to prepare fresh vegetables? There was no place safe to exercise. Can’t walk in the neighborhood. No gyms nearby.

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  2. 2. PamPeekeMD 8:40 am 02/21/2013

    “`Our study shows that the majority of obesity news stories are written in a negative tone, mainly attributing individual responsibilities to overcome obesity, which means many African Americans in need of weight loss could be discouraged by what they are reading in newspapers, instead of being inspired by positive success stories about overcoming obesity or other health problems.’”

    Nearly ALL reporting on obesity follows this rule unless you seek out news about the emerging science on weight, weight loss and addiction. In that sector, a different picture emerges: hyperpalatable foods (foods that layer salt, fat, and sweet flavors, proven to increase consumption) are addictive. Losing weight is no more a matter of will-power telling an alcoholic to stop drinking until he is sober. It is a matter of changing one’s entire life forever, which should be a positive and empowering experience.

    Science now shows through new tools like PET and MRI brain scans the addiction-related organic changes that take place in the reward system and the prefrontal cortex. This occurs across all additions, from drugs and alcohol to the newly discovered food addiction. This new pioneering research is also helping us to appreciate a holistic and integrative approach to addiction. I was first senior research fellow in the NIH Office of Complementary Medicine. Using food addiction as template, THE HUNGER FIX addiction plan integrates personal empowerment, spirituality, along with whole food nutrition and restorative physical activity. Shame, blame and guilt must be neutralized with compassion, empathy and then the tools of self-empowerment.

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  3. 3. Bluegirl30 4:54 pm 02/21/2013

    Much of obesity is related to the prevalence of food chemicals in the food,regardless of Nationality. Researchers showed that an insulin resistant diet can reverse much of diabetes and obesity see here

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  4. 4. greenhome123 2:02 pm 02/26/2013

    obesity is a nationwide problem that effects all races.

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  5. 5. Hydronium Hydroxide 1:37 pm 03/2/2013

    How dare they blame people for their obesity. Everyone knows it’s the capitalist exploiters fault! People who are obese don’t choose to be obese. They are that way because capitalists brainwashed them with advertising. And because capitalists control the land supply and that’s why Cheetos are so cheap and vegetables are so expensive. They only care about profits for some corporation. Obviously if the means of production were controlled by the workers they wouldn’t eat junk food. And they would get more exercise if they didn’t have to fear getting shot. We need gun control and that would mean our communtities, especcially comunties of color, are safe from gun violence. We will never have a society without obesity unless we first get rid of capitalism. And capitalism is racist. Only facsits and conservatives who are privileged white people talk about “individual responsibility.”

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