• Open Access

Australian print news media coverage of sweet, non-alcoholic drinks sends mixed health messages

Authors

  • Catriona Bonfiglioli,

    1. Journalism, Information and Media Studies Group, University of Technology, New South Wales
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  • Libby Hattersley,

    1. National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, The Australian National University, Australian Capital Territory, and Physical Activity, Nutrition & Obesity Research Group, University of Sydney, New South Wales
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  • Lesley King

    1. Physical Activity, Nutrition & Obesity Research Group, University of Sydney, New South Wales
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Correspondence to:
Catriona Bonfiglioli, Journalism, Information and Media Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway NSW 2007; e-mail: Catriona.Bonfiglioli@uts.edu.au

Abstract

Objective: This study aimed to analyse the contribution of Australian print news coverage to the public profile of sweet, non-alcoholic beverages. News media portrayal of health contributes to individuals’ decision-making. The focus on sugar-sweetened beverages reflects their contribution to excessive energy intake.

Methods: One year's coverage of sweet, non-alcoholic beverages by major Australian newspapers was analysed using content and frame analysis. Research questions addressed which sweet drinks are most prominently covered, what makes sweet drinks newsworthy and how are the health aspects of sweet drinks framed?

Results: Fruit juice was the most widely covered sweet drink, closely followed by carbonated, sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Overall coverage was positively oriented towards sweet drinks, with fruit juice primarily portrayed as having health benefits. Some coverage mentioned risks of sweet drinks, such as obesity, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome and heart attack.

Conclusions: Sweet drinks often enjoy positive coverage, with their health benefits and harms central to their ability to attract journalists’ attention. However, the mix of coverage may be contributing to consumer confusion about whether it is safe and/or healthy to consume sweet non-alcoholic drinks.

Implications: Framing of sweet drinks as healthy may undermine efforts to encourage individuals to avoid excess consumption of energy-dense drinks which offer few or minimal health benefits.

Sweet, non-alcoholic beverages (‘sweet drinks’) are a familiar and taken-for-granted feature of everyday Australian culture. They are consumed regularly in social settings1 and are among the most heavily promoted of extra foods.2,3 Promotion is implicated in sweet drink uptake.4 There is well-established evidence linking consumption of these beverages to myriad adverse health impacts, including increased risk of weight gain, metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, dental caries and reduced bone density.3,5

Recent analyses of commercial beverage sales data indicate changing population consumption patterns, with caloric energy drinks, flavoured waters, sports drinks, artificially-sweetened carbonated soft drinks and ‘new-age’ functional drinks increasing in popularity, while sales of caloric carbonated drinks have dropped.6,7 The growth in sales of diet and functional beverages has stimulated industry to move to capture more of the ‘healthy consumer’ dollar, in particular by investing heavily in the development and marketing of novel, value-added drink products such as ‘power juices’, ‘vitamin water’‘smart water’, and even fortified, carbonated soft drink.8

While the current ‘health and wellness’ trend is presenting significant opportunities for commercial interests in the food and beverage industry, sweet drinks are an area of ongoing community and public health concern. Community concerns tend to centre largely on perceived health risks associated with artificial sweeteners and energy drinks, soft drinks sales in schools, marketing to children, and the impact of plastic bottles on the environment.3,9 Along with pressure from the public health community, these concerns have stimulated some policy responses such as restrictions of sales in schools and calls to limit their marketing to children.3,10

Despite extensive health and business interests in sweet drinks, this study is to our knowledge the first to analyse newspaper coverage of sweet drinks. Story and Faulkner's analysis of television shows and advertising found sweet drinks were featured in television program almost once per hour (0.85 representations per hour) and sweet drinks were advertised at a rate of almost one per hour (0.92 adverts per hour).11 Byrd-Bredbenner and colleagues’ analysis of 1998 prime-time fictional and news television programs found these shows frequently showed slender people eating foods low in nutritional value, concluding that non-advertising content, such as news reports, requires research attention.12 Kelly and colleagues found 24% of food advertising near schools was for soft drinks.13 Issues reported prominently by the media are more likely to be seen as important by the public14 and the way issues are framed by news reporting influences how the public understands them.15 While journalists are not employed to provide a public health information service, audiences may use news in this way, depending on their attitudes towards the media and their access to alternative sources of information.16,17 Therefore, the prominence and type of news coverage of sweet drinks is likely to be shaping public understandings of these beverages and thus is of importance to public health professionals examining the role of these drinks in the obesity-promoting environment.18

Analysis of news coverage and news angles can be valuable in revealing the way journalists understand a particular public health issue, suggesting which aspects of a public health issue are and are not currently considered newsworthy, and informing strategies for gaining health-promoting news attention.19 For example, recent research on Australian television news coverage of obesity found sweet drinks were reported as one cause of obesity, but few of the solutions reported proposed curbing their intake.20

This study aimed to examine the way newspapers in Australia portray sweet, non-alcoholic drinks in their news reporting. For the purposes of this study, the term ‘sweet, non-alcoholic drinks’ refers to all carbonated soft drinks (sugar-sweetened and artificially-sweetened), fruit-based drinks and 100% fruit juices, sweet milk-based drinks (smoothies, milkshakes, flavoured milks), iced teas, energy drinks, sports drinks and flavoured and vitamin waters (sweet drinks). It does not include plain water, plain milk or hot non-alcoholic drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Specifically, the study aimed to analyse:

  • • The nature of news coverage of sweet drinks (including how they are linked to health and economic benefits and concerns)
  • • Which aspects of sweet drinks attract news media attention;
  • • The portrayal of sweet drinks in association with children;
  • • The types of sweet drinks featured in the news;
  • • How the relationship between sweet drinks and health is framed;
  • • How the relationship between sweet drinks, business interests and the economy is framed;
  • • How the marketing of sweet drinks is framed; and,
  • • The overall orientation of newspaper articles towards sweet drinks.

The research approach draws on framing and agenda setting theories as they apply to media.14,15,21–26

Methods

Content analysis was combined with framing analysis to examine newspaper coverage of sweet drinks over a one-year period (2007). 15,27

The study sample was drawn from the Factiva news database, which was searched for news and features articles published by key Australian newspapers in 2007 (1 January – 31 December). The sampled newspapers were the top-selling broadsheet in NSW (The Sydney Morning Herald: 2007 M-F circulation 212,700), the top-selling tabloid in NSW (The Daily Telegraph: 385,000), the top-selling national paper (The Australian: 136,000), the top-selling Sunday paper in Australia (The Sunday Telegraph: 671,500) and the top-selling broadsheet in Victoria (The Age: 208,000). The sample includes papers from the two main newspaper groups (Fairfax and News Ltd). Articles were identified using the following search strategy: (soft drink) or [(sugar or sugary or soft or sweetened) and drink] or juice or (fruit drink) or cordial or [flavoured and (milk or water)] or soda or smoothie or [(ice or iced) and tea] or [(energy or sports) and drink] or slushie or smoothie or [(ice or iced) and (chocolate or coffee)].

The following exclusion criteria were applied to restrict the sample to relevant items:

  • • The item must make at least one reference to cold, non-alcoholic beverages in the headline and/or the first paragraph.
  • • The word ‘juice’ is not used only to refer to non-applicable concepts such as petrol, wine, creative juices, lemon juice as a cooking ingredient or OJ Simpson.
  • • The item is not fictional or a news brief

A content and frame analysis coding protocol was designed and used to code each item for: length and type of article, page placement, news angle, mention of children, beverage types reported on, and framing of these beverages overall, as well as in relation to health; economics; and marketing/advertising. The news angles, within the headline or first paragraph of each item,28 were categorised thematically. Table 1 gives the full data coding protocol.

Table 1.  Coding protocol.
Item ID
Date
Name of newspaper
Article headline
Page number
Newspaper section
Article length (number of words)
Main topic of first paragraph
News angle of article (aspect of the story which attracted the journalist's attention)
Children and/or adolescents mentioned in article (Yes/No)
List all drinks mentioned in article, including novel labels such as ‘liquid candy’
Indicate drink categories mentioned in article (Yes/No):
• carbonated sweetened beverages
• diet carbonated beverages
• 100% fruit juice
• fruit drink
• cordial or fruit-flavoured water
• iced tea
• flavoured milk or yoghurt drink
• sports or energy drink
• other cold non-alcoholic beverage, i.e. smoothies, slushies, slurpees
Sweet drinks and health: Identify text which asserts that sweet drinks are:
• Good for health
• Harmless
• Harmful to health
Sweet drinks and business/the economy: Identify text which asserts that sweet drink is:
• Good for business, profit or the economy
• Bad for business, profit or the economy
Marketing of sweet drinks: Identify text which asserts that marketing sweet drinks is:
• A social good
• Harmless
• Harmful or a social problem
Sweet drinks and issues other than health and business: Identify text which asserts that sweet drink is:
• Good for something other than health or business
• Harmless
• Harmful/has a negative impact on something other than health or business
Indicate whether the overall framing of the article towards sweet drink is:
• Positive, e.g. Stop press: juice good for you (The Australian, 16 March 2007: p.7)
• Neutral, e.g. Juice group in the soup (Daily Telegraph, 9 June 2007: p 66)
• Negative, e.g. It's time to stop the rot – Sugary drinks are destroying kids' teeth, despite years of warnings (Sunday Telegraph, 6 May 2007: p.9)

Coding was conducted by two independent researchers familiar with the protocol. Inter-coder reliability was calculated on 11% of the sample (ten items). Agreement was 100% for 30 of the 32 coding categories, with 90% agreement for the remaining two categories. Final coding for these two categories was agreed on through discussion between research team members.

Results

The initial search strategy generated 209 articles. Following exclusions, a final sample of 88 news items was chosen for coding. This included 21 articles published by The Australian, 13 by The Age, nine by The Sunday Telegraph, 19 by The Sydney Morning Herald, and 26 by The Daily Telegraph. Sweet drinks received more coverage in these newspapers in 2007 than measles (eight articles mention measles in the headline and/or first paragraph), a similar quantity to stories about ‘fast food’ (108 articles) and less than breast cancer (199) (Factiva search). Fruit juice was referred to in more than half (60%) of the articles, and caloric, carbonated soft drinks in 43% (38 articles). The breakdown of drink categories featured in the sample is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Percentage of articles mentioning each type of sweet drink.

News angles

More than one-third of articles in the sample employed news angles relating to health aspects of sweet drinks, with the most common category being negative health impacts associated with sweet drinks (14% of all articles). Conversely, reporting on the health benefits of sweet drinks generated a further 11% of articles. Several business-related news angles were identified, with an equal proportion of articles reporting on beverage industry profitability and risks (both 9%). Other business-related news angle categories included market share battles (11%), labelling battles (7%) and price rises (5%). The full breakdown of news angles identified is presented in Table 2.

Table 2.  What makes sweet drinks news?
Category of news angleExample headlineNo. of items
Sweet drinks are bad for healthFruit juice is fattening12 (14%)
Sweet drinks are good for healthStop press: juice good for you10 (11%)
Debate over health benefitsMiracle juice claims are a load of rot, says Choice3 (3%)
Controversy over Heart Foundation tick for McDonalds restaurantJust a tick, Maccas has taken health to heart3 (3%)
Other health claimsTasty sip is key to good health2 (2%)
Big bucks – profitability of beverage industryAmatil lifts net earnings to $140m8 (9%)
Risky business – beverages are big businessCoke's Mother proving a hard sell8 (9%)
Drink wars – firms fight over market shareNo Bull, says drink maker6 (7%)
Row over labelsBeverage maker in label row6 (7%)
Price of juice and milk to risePrice of milk to increase4 (5%)
Other drink business newsBull sees red over switch3 (3%)
Marketing – Firms buy adverts to promote drinksCoke all hyper as it charges back into energy drink war3 (3%)
Anti-marketing – Bid to ban junk food/drink ads to kidsPush to ban soft drink ads for young2 (2%)
OtherSoft drink, hard tactics18 (20%)
Total 88 (100%)

Framing

Overall, 31% of articles in the sample portrayed sweet drinks in a positive light (i.e. all or most references to sweet drinks within the article were positive), while 22% of articles were predominantly negative and 47% neutral towards sweet drinks.

Of the 26 articles which mentioned some aspect of business, profit or the economy in relation to sweet drinks, the majority (73%) asserted or implied that sweet drinks are good for business, profit or the economy. Seven of the 88 articles made some reference to the downside of the market (for example, reporting that some firms were bailing out of the soft drink industry). Marketing or promotion of sweet drinks was reported on in 23 articles, with the majority of these (61%) referring to marketing of sweet drinks as being harmful or a social problem. A further 12% of articles portrayed it as being harmless and about one-quarter (26%) portrayed it positively.

Almost half of the sample (43 articles) reported on health-related aspects of sweet drink consumption, with 53% of these linking sweet drinks to health concerns, and 42% linking them to health benefits (largely relating to 100% fruit juice). A further 5% portrayed sweet drinks as harmless to health.

Children and sweet drinks

Of the 22 articles (25%) which associated sweet drinks with children, five framed sweet drinks in a positive light overall, and five specifically framed sweet drinks as being good for health. The five articles which involved a positive health frame included references to sports drinks (n=3), energy drinks (n=1), flavoured milk straws (n=2) and fruit juice (n=1). Two of the 22 articles mentioning children framed sweet drink marketing as being a social good. These two articles were published on the same day in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, and reported on the launch of Gatorade's new sports drink – Gatorade Active Under13s – specifically targeting children under 13 years.

Page placement

Stories about sweet drinks rarely appeared on page 1 and only 13/88 (14.8%) of the articles appeared in the first five pages of the newspaper. The only story to appear on page one of a newspaper was about fruit juice in baby bottles rotting toddlers’ teeth (Sunday Telegraph p.1 May 6 2007: ‘Dental crisis for toddlers’).

Discussion

The health aspects of sweet drink consumption were clearly considered newsworthy by Australia's major newspapers in 2007, with almost half of this 2007 sample mentioning good, bad or contested health impacts, and one-third focusing mainly on this topic. At the same time, with one-quarter of relevant articles reporting on the profit-generating potential of sweet drinks in 2007, economic aspects of the beverage industry are evidently also newsworthy and largely reported positively in the print news media. The paucity of page one stories suggests that sweet drinks are rarely very high on the news agenda and thus unlikely to be at the top of the public agenda.14

Carbonated soft drinks featured prominently in this sample, and particularly in relation to health concerns. However the most frequently cited beverage category was fruit juice, which is consistent with sales data indicating that these drinks are rising in popularity.29 While the global financial crisis softened fruit juice sales,30 strong growth is expected in juice sales and energy drinks and ready-to-drink teas are booming.31 There was a strong emphasis on fruit juice being good for health, although these drinks, along with energy drinks and carbonated soft drinks (including diet varieties), were linked to a number of adverse health impacts such as tooth decay, weight gain and heart disease.

Although sweet drink as a health risk was the leading news angle in this sample, other news angles highlighting health benefits of such drinks were almost as frequent. Debates over health benefits of various sweet drinks also generated stories. Framing of sweet drinks was more often positive than negative, but links between sweet drinks and health risks were almost matched by links to good health, again contributing to a potentially contradictory picture. The portrayal of fruit juice appears more straightforward, with most articles that linked sweet drinks to health benefits referring to fruit juice; thus framing fruit juice as healthy.

This study identifies how news media messages (non-advertising) fail to communicate a clear message about the health risks of sweet drinks. Mixing good and bad news about sweet drinks means the news media offer consumers few defences against the ubiquitous, very well-funded advertisements telling us sweet drink are ‘good’, ‘natural’, ‘tasty’, etc, the excessive portion sizes, and the inadequate labelling of these energy-dense products. Beverage marketing strategies are focusing on ‘wellness’, which allows the industry to portray itself as responding to consumers’ need and desire for healthier products while selling sugary drinks. However, promotion of supposed health benefits of sweet drinks, such as fortification with added nutrients, is at odds with public health messages to limit overall consumption of added sugars and caloric drinks.32 Thus efforts to encourage individuals to avoid excess consumption of energy-dense drinks which offer few or minimal health benefits are undermined. For example, if Australians are encouraged to focus solely on the health benefits of fruit juice, without adequately considering the contribution that excess or inappropriate consumption of these drinks makes to calorific intake, diarrhoea, diabetes and tooth decay,33–35 they may underestimate the value of whole fruit consumption as a less calorie-dense, more nutritious alternative to juiced fruits.33,36 Weak page placement suggests sweet drinks are usually handled as a soft news story: If journalists do not take the health risks of sweet drinks seriously why should the public?13

Conclusions

The public health implications are clear: news messages which do not consistently highlight the health risks of sweet drinks and thus fail to counter well-funded advertising campaigns are combined with continued or increased consumption of sweet drinks despite their contribution to excessive energy intake, obesity, tooth decay and diabetes.3,5,31,37 The challenge is to highlight the sugar content of these drinks and communicate more widely the health risks of excess consumption. These goals could be achieved by a combination of public health media advocacy38 and social marketing.4,39

Public health media advocates could highlight the health risks of soft drinks, challenge fruit juice's status as purely healthy,33,37,40,41 question marketing, especially to children, point out the high sugar content of drinks and contribute to contests over labelling: all these topics have the potential to gain news media coverage and contribute to the goal of curbing intake of sweet drinks.32

Social marketing strategies could also be employed to highlight sugar content of soft drinks, make the health risks more salient and promote the wellness benefits of avoiding excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.4

Of course, the bottom line for commercial interests in the food and beverage sector is profit, not public health.42 Thus, one of the most practical mechanisms for alerting consumers to the potential downside of these products may be comprehensive, easy-to-understand labelling such as the ‘traffic light’ labels43 which industry appears to be resisting strongly on the grounds that they are too simplistic, confusing, and fail to take account of serving size and total diet.43,44 In this UK Food Standards Agency labelling system fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt levels are marked with red (high), amber (medium) or green (low) circles (based on European cut-points).45 If industry self-regulation does not adopt labelling which consumers can understand easily enough to make healthy choices, the case for regulated comprehensible front-of-pack labelling is strengthened.

This study focused on print news media coverage over a one-year period and does not attempt to give a final picture of news media portrayal of sweet drinks in Australia. The findings demonstrate the value of news analysis as part of any exploration of the role of cultural and social factors within the Australian food and nutrition environment. Further research on coverage in television, radio and internet news, as well as research on marketing activities and audience understandings, would complement this study and provide a more comprehensive account.

This study did not involve human subjects and was thus not required to undergo ethical review.

Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge the contribution of our research assistant Ms Isla Tooth and the support of the NSW Health Department for PANORG.

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