NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Television coverage of childhood obesity is less likely than print media to focus on the role of the food and beverage industry, according to a new report in the journal Pediatrics.
On the other hand, TV networks more often mention solutions on the personal level, like exercising and eating healthy foods.
That is concerning, researchers say, because spotlighting individual ways to combat obesity instead of focusing on underlying societal issues can pull the public's attention away from needed changes.
"If we think the answer to solving the problem is all about individuals changing their behavior, then there is no role for policy changes," said Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who worked on the study.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past three decades, reaching close to 20 percent in 2008.
With her colleagues, Barry analyzed a sample of 806 of the news stories that ran in U.S. magazines and newspapers and on TV networks between 2000 and 2009.
The team found that nearly all stories mentioned some sort of solution to the obesity problem. About two-thirds of TV news stories mentioned diet or exercise changes, while newspapers did so 52 percent of the time and magazines 58 percent of the time.
By contrast, TV networks mentioned system-level solutions -- like creating playgrounds or making sure that healthy foods are available in poor neighborhoods -- less frequently than print media.
Specifically, networks pointed to potential changes in the food and beverage industry only 18 percent of the time, compared to more than 30 percent in newspapers and magazines.
Barry said the reasons for this are unclear, but said industry ads on TV might play a role.
"TV news relies more heavily on advertising dollars from the food and beverage industry, so I think that could provide some influence," she told Reuters Health.
According to data from the Nielsen Company, about 15 percent of ads on TV were paid for by the food industry in 2008, compared to only two percent of the ads in newspapers.
Another possible explanation for the different coverage is that systems-based solutions may be too abstract and therefore harder to address in a visual medium, Barry said.
The researchers also found that childhood obesity coverage had dropped markedly since 2007, although the extra weight is still plaguing our society.
"It's a serious public health problem, and despite efforts to change people's behavior, childhood obesity shows no signs of abating," Barry said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/iidweQ Pediatrics, online June 20, 2011.