Background Childhood obesity is a global public health concern, associated with a wide range of illnesses and economic costs. Tackling childhood obesity demands a comprehensive package of measures, targeting various levels in the whole system. However, governments often rely on individual-level solutions rather than societal-level solutions to tackle the problem. Public attention and supportiveness is often a prerequisite for political action, and news media represent a key influence on public attention to, and interpretations of, health problems and their potential solutions. This study is a comparative analysis of the framing of childhood obesity between 1996 and 2014 in national newspapers of the UK, Canada and Sweden, taking into account the specific policy contexts of each country.
Methods Quantitative content analysis of newspaper articles predominantly focused on childhood obesity, collected from the Nexis and Retriever Research databases. A total of 1839 relevant articles were coded using a framework that recorded mentions of definitions of, drivers of, and solutions to the childhood obesity problem. A random subsample of each country’s articles was double-coded and inter-rater reliability was measured to ensure consistent interpretation and application of codes. Data were subjected to statistical analysis, including chi2 tests of relationships between countries and logistic regressions of changes in framing over time, with particular focus on mentions of individual- and societal-level solutions to childhood obesity.
Results Across the three countries, there was significantly (p=0.013) more coverage of societal-level solutions (51.0%) than individual-level solutions (43.5%). Between 1996 and 2014 the proportion of articles reporting on individual solutions declined (p<0.001), while the proportion mentioning societal solutions remained steady. However, trends in representations of solutions differed between the three countries over time. There were also between-country differences in representations of gender, ethnocentrism, alarmism, and the extents to which diet and sedentary behaviours were associated with the problem.
Conclusion Given the influence of the media framing, an increasing focus on societal framings may be beneficial for public health advocates campaigning for political action to target the systemic drivers of childhood obesity. However, substantial differences in each country’s framing of childhood obesity suggest that advocates must tailor their tactics to the dominant framing of the issue within their countries, as well as to the specific national policy landscapes in which they operate.
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