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Fat in the Fire? Science, the News Media, and the “Obesity Epidemic”2


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     This research is part of a larger project funded by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program in Health Policy Research, the Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (run jointly by American Sociological Association and the National Science Foundation), the UCLA Sociology Department, the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA, the UCLA Senate, and by the UCLA Graduate Summer Research Mentorship Program in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Jeanine Yang, Shanna Gong, Isabelle Huguet Lee, and Jen Marony provided research assistance. Rod Benson, Steve Clayman, Nina Eliasoph, Steve Epstein, John Evans, Michael Hout, Paul Lichterman, Deana Rohlinger, Gabriel Rossman, Bill Roy, Mark Schlesinger, Michael Schudson, Ann Swidler, and Stefan Timmermans provided insightful feedback on previous versions of this article. We further benefited from presenting this article at the UCLA Sociology of Medicine and Health (SOMAH) working group, the UC Berkeley Sociology Departmental Colloquium Series, and the UC Santa Barbara Sociology Departmental Colloquium Series. The ideas put forth in this article were nurtured in conversations with Nicki Beisel, Paul Campos, Marion Fourcade-Gourinchas, Barry Glassner, Darnell Hunt, Eric Oliver, Kevin Riley, Barbara Katz Rothman, Dotan Saguy, Charles W. Smith, Megan Sweeney, and Marilyn Wann. Thanks to the showmethedata listserv for stimulating discussions of obesity research. Thanks to the Statistical Consulting Group at UCLA Academic Technology Services for technical advice. Finally, we are grateful for especially insightful comments we received from an anonymous reviewer at Sociological Forum.


In recent years, the “obesity epidemic” has emerged as a putative public health crisis. This article examines the interconnected role of medical science and news reporting in shaping the way obesity is framed as a social problem. Drawing on a sample of scientific publications on weight and health, and press releases and news reporting on these publications, we compare and contrast social problem frames in medical science and news reporting. We find substantial overlap in science and news reporting, but the news media do dramatize more than the studies on which they are reporting and are more likely than the original science to highlight individual blame for weight. This is partly due to the news media’s tendency to report more heavily on the most alarmist and individual-blaming scientific studies. We find some evidence that press releases also shape which articles receive media coverage and how they are framed.