Framing Childhood Obesity: How Individualizing the Problem Affects Public Support for Prevention



Political actors recognize the power of framing problems using personalized examples and causal stories to shape public opinion. Yet little is known about how these frames interact. This research presents the results of three studies designed to investigate the effect of “individualizing” the problem of childhood obesity, in combination with information about causes of obesity, on public support for obesity prevention policies (Studies 1 and 2) and to examine how frequently the news media rely on individual depictions of obese children to portray the problem in actual news coverage (Study 3). Results from two experiments consistently demonstrated that, regardless of how the cause of childhood obesity was framed, when a news report identified an individual obese child, participants were less likely to support prevention policies than when the report described the problem in more general terms. A content analysis indicated that news articles relatively infrequently frame the problem using individualized depictions of a specific child. When specific overweight or obese children were mentioned, news coverage emphasized internal (behavioral and genetic) causes rather than factors external to the child such as neighborhood, economic, or food-industry factors. Findings underscore the importance of considering attitudes toward a policy's target population when assessing how individual depictions of a policy problem influence public sentiment.