At best, a news story headline can attempt to capsulize a situation in fewer words than a Twitter tweet. At worst, it can spread misinformation faster than the airborne bacteria expelled by a sneeze. Of course, all news stories are not created equal. Reportorial bias is taken for granted, and trying to understand any news item requires a delicate balance between respect for authority and a healthy skepticism. A person needs to have a nose for spin and a sense of what sounds improbable.
Where does all this information originate? What are the sources? Obesity news comes from many organizations, agencies, institutions, bureaus, and foundations that either gather numbers as one of their functions, or cause numbers to be gathered by others. Most supply some kind of interpretation along with the numbers. This is a soft science, but no less important, because most people are simply baffled by news stories that often seem to conflict, not only with what they were raised to believe, but with each other.
In July of last year, for instance, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report titled “Prevalence of Obesity in the United States,” which said:
Dr. Ogden and colleagues concluded that there have been no significant changes in the prevalence of obesity over the past decade. The authors also reported that the prevalence of obesity in children ages 2 through 5 years declined significantly. However, the data on the prevalence of obesity in this age group were unstable.
Thanks to ineptly-phrased headlines, many members of the public were convinced that the battle had been won and the childhood obesity epidemic was over. Irresponsible writers took that bit about the 2 to 5-year-olds and ran with it. But the first sentence included the words “no significant changes in the prevalence of obesity over the past decade,” and almost everyone ignored that part.
An incredible amount of information is available to anyone who cares to look. Obesity Prevention Source, a service of Harvard University, provides research summaries, statistics and trends, diet and lifestyle tips, and preventive strategies that can be implemented by governments at the community and national levels. Harvard describes it as, “An in-depth resource for all who seek to understand the causes of obesity and to reverse the epidemic of obesity in children and adults.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a comprehensive two-part guide to the food industry’s strategy of following Big Tobacco playbook. Lindsey Haynes-Maslow writes:
My past research on the tobacco industry’s framing of arguments revealed that they focused on promoting individual choice and personal responsibility, inciting fear of big government (think “nanny state”), threatening economic insecurity, and accusing public health scientists of manipulating data about the consequences of smoking.
“How Healthy is Your Community?” is an interactive map of the United States on the website of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Pick a state, and then narrow it down to a county, and find “Overall Rankings in Health Outcomes” and “Overall Rankings in Health Factors.” An infographic titled “The United States of Obesity” is an example of what can be done by curating informational items from several different sources and placing them in logical order with pictures and charts.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Prevalence of Obesity in the United States.” JAMANetwork.com, 07/09/14
Source: “Obesity Prevention Source.” Harvard.edu, undated
Source: “A Lunchroom Lesson, Part 1: Repackaging Tobacco for a Food Fight,” UCSUSA.org, 03/18/15
Source: “How Healthy is Your Community?.” countyhealthrankings.org, undated
Source: “The United States of Obesity,” healthcentral.com, 08/05/14
Image by Robert Couse-Baker