Professors examinelink between media content and obesity

An interdisciplinary group of professors is combining their expertise to research causes of obesity.

Alyssa Kroeten

Over-indulging in junk food and becoming too comfortable on the couch might not be the only reasons for an expanding waistline.

A group of University professors are working to determine if media and psychological factors also play a role.

A research collaborative, “Mapping the Determinants of Health and Behavior,” received almost $20,000 this fall from the Institute for Advanced Study to help fund efforts in discovering the determinants of obesity.

It is an interdisciplinary group in which professors from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the School of Public Health and the Department of Psychology are combining their expertise to develop studies to research the causes of obesity.

The group’s goal is to understand how psychology, communications and health behavior interact, Alex Rothman, group co-chairman and psychology professor, said.

“The better we can understand how those factors work together and affect people’s diets and physical activity, the better able we’ll be to intervene in ways to affectively help improve those behaviors,” Rothman said.

What began as informal, bi-weekly meetings among professors in fall 2006, grew into a formal collaborative effort, Rothman said.

The group is using part of the funding it received to finance a speaker series in which they bring in scholars to gather perspectives on what influences obesity and public health, Marco Yzer, assistant professor at SJMC, said.

As a part of that series, Robert Hornik, Wilbur Schramm professor of communication at the Annenburg School for Communication, discussed the claims made about how the media affects obesity levels in a presentation at Murphy Hall on Thursday.

Hornik said there are four areas in which media messages can negatively or positively affect obesity outcomes: direct education, advocacy campaigns, media content and patterns of media usage.

None of these claims are supported by strong evidence, Hornik said.

Direct education involves getting people to change their dietary or physical behavior, Hornik said, but usually cannot be maintained over time.

“It’s often quite costly and difficult to maintain over time, so even if they were effective, they may not be possible to do on a larger scale,” Hornik said.

Keryn Pasch, research associate in epidemiology, said public health campaigns are at a disadvantage because they do not have as much funding as corporations.

Advocacy campaigns – such as the push for healthier food options in public schools, media content and ways people use media – also lack evidence because research in the area of obesity and communication is relatively new, Brian Southwell, director of graduate studies at SJMC, said.

Bob Jeffery, director of the University’s Obesity Prevention Center, said the media is not doing enough to emphasize the growing problem of obesity.

“Even though this epidemic has been around for 10 years, it still gets reported every six months as if somebody’s just discovered it,” Jeffery said.

The media only focus on the “cultural norm,” the view that obesity is caused by lack of self-control, Jeffery said. Telling the public to exercise more self-control is “blaming the victim.”

“They’ve sort of embraced the idea that this is an individual responsibility and that people should take care of themselves,” Jeffery said.

“At one level, that’s true, but most scientists that look at the issue would say there is a huge genetic component to susceptibility to obesity,” he said.

The media are not necessarily to blame, Southwell said.

“There are a lot of compelling forces there,” Southwell said. “It’s not going to be a matter of media just encouraging people.”

The interests of private groups, such as food distributors and manufacturers, are hurting the obesity problem, Jeffery said.

“We have too much food and it’s being marketed aggressively in kind of every nook and cranny of our society and people are eating too much,” Jeffery said. “Nobody is taking any responsibility.”