Food For Thought VI

Since 1995, health and how food impacts Americans' health have emerged as the single-most important focus of media reports about nutrition and food safety. That’s the conclusion of a decade-long tracking survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation and the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA).Through their Food for Thought research project, the groups have been looking at how the news media, ranging from print to broadcast to the Internet, cover the important topics of food safety, nutrition, and health. The purpose of these biannual surveys has been to document what kind of information is readily available to consumers, as well as to make some general assessments about the quality of that information.

From 1995 to 2005, one thing has remained consistent; food is big news. Whether it's the recent news of the obesity epidemic to past reports on foodborne illness and food labeling regulations, Americans will readily admit they get more of their health information from the mass media than from healthcare professionals. But the accuracy and helpfulness of this advice can be debated, due to the consistent lack of context in news coverage.

The underreporting of contextual elements has been one of the most highly relevant findings over the past decade of food and health news. The Food for Thought research has found that journalists are very good at telling the "what" of a food and health story, but can leave off "to whom" does the advice apply, "how much" is needed, "how often" should the advice be followed, and "what are the consequences" of following the advice, as well as what the key elements of the underlying research are. Whether due to time or space constraints, journalists can often oversimplify the reporting of science-based food and health news, bringing about a situation in which consumers cannot judge the relevance of the information for their own diet, lifestyle, and nutritional needs.

The overall media focus on health has evolved over the past decade. In some years, when Food for Thought observed more "negative" stories of foodborne illness and possible food contamination, the risks to human health were the focus. In years such as in recent Food for Thought studies where stories focused on reducing the risk of disease, much of the news was "positive" in nature, promoting the benefits of consuming certain foods to improve health.

Overall, sources of the news have been largely science-based, whether through scientific studies or through the researchers themselves. Since the 1997 Food for Thought II report, scientists and scientific research have gained popularity as a source of information for journalists. Increasingly, journalists are citing research published in more obscure scientific journals in addition to the major publications, and are quoting the scientists conducting the research. The proliferation and promotion of medical and scientific journals and the increased use of the Internet as a tool to find information have made studies that were once read only by the medical community accessible for all of the lay public to review and report on the findings.

The topics of food news have been as varied over the past 10 years as there are topics to discuss and discover. With the exception of the consistent reporting on disease prevention and risk reduction, the topics explored in food safety and nutrition news have varied with the ebb and flow of news cycles. When the Food for Thought research began in 1995, the big stories were the advice to limit fat consumption and the dangers associated with foodborne illness and food contaminants. In the 2005 study, dietary fats were discussed in a polarized manner — criticizing trans and saturated fats while extolling the virtues of omega-3 fatty acids — and foodborne illness and food contaminants did not even register in the top 10 topics covered in the news.

2005 Findings

OBESITY IS KING. The intensity of obesity discussions rose in 2005, as both the perils of excess weight and the benefits of controlling obesity were frequently in the news. As a topic, obesity emerged in the 2001 Food for Thought IV survey as an issue that bore watching. In 2003, obesity coverage exploded as the nation became more cognizant of the epidemic, not only obesity in adults, but in children as well. The main topics discussed in the obesity debate this year were childhood obesity, controversy surrounding the discrepancies in the CDC mortality reports, and the increase in research studies on the problems of excess weight.

b. In 2005, there were only small shifts from previous years in the proportion of contextual information provided in news stories linking a particular harm or benefit with a food. Most notable was the increase in the citation of scientific research to support an assertion of harm or benefit, but many of these citations were as simple as "studies show," "research suggests," or "according to research." Another interesting change to note is the increase in the number of epidemiological studies cited in news reports on food safety, nutrition, and health.

FOOD SAFETY ISSUES UNDER CONTROL. One of the major topics conspicuous by its absence in 2005 was news coverage dealing with food safety issues. There were no major outbreaks of foodborne illness, and even though two cows tested positive for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) during the survey period, the resulting fact-based stories did not spawn additional articles.

FUNCTIONAL FOODS = NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS. Functional foods, or foods that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition, led the discussion of not only the benefits attributed to certain foods, but overall food attributes as well (e.g. flavor, possible contamination, etc.). Heart-healthy fats, fiber, and vitamins and minerals were heavily covered in news reports in 2005. There were also many stories that gave the general advice to “eat fruits and vegetables” in order to increase one’s intake of foods rich in vitamins and minerals.

BENEFITS OUTWEIGH HARMS 2-TO-1. In the 2005 survey, discussion of the benefits of certain foods outweighed the discussion of harms by almost a two-to-one margin. The coverage of the attributes of food has, in recent years, taken on a more advisory, or helpful, tone, offering people information on what to eat, or how to maintain a healthful weight, rather than trying to scare people. The assertions of harm related to disease causation have not changed much over the past decade, with the focus remaining on heart disease and cancer.

STUDY BACKGROUND. Ten years ago, in 1995, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation first commissioned the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) to examine the information about diet, nutrition, and food safety issues provided to consumers by a wide range of print and electronic news media. To explore what local and national media told their audiences about the foods they eat and how their dietary choices affect their health, CMPA conducted a scientific content analysis. In order to chart the changing patterns in media coverage, the initial study has been replicated at two-year intervals (1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2005).The result is a series of snapshots which reveal both consistencies and changes in media coverage. This report summarizes the salient trends and compares them to the results of CMPA’s earlier analyses of media coverage.

For this most recent installment, CMPA examined the coverage in 40 local and national news outlets from May through July 2005. This study used the same coding system during the same three-month sample period that was used in previous studies. These snapshots have sometimes been amended over the years by the addition and deletion of media outlets from the sample. In 2005, there were no changes to the media outlets included.

The issue of obesity necessitated a change in the story selection rules for the Food for Thought V research in 2003. In previous years, the analysis had been restricted to stories that focused on nutrition, dietary choices, and food safety. This sample definition sufficed for the earlier surveys, but coverage in recent years seemed to take a more holistic approach to obesity and physical activity. This approach blurred lines between nutrition stories and articles on other aspects of obesity. Therefore, in order to capture a complete picture of obesity coverage and the related issue of physical activity, the sample selection rules were amended to include any reports on obesity and physical activity as a part of a healthful lifestyle.

Executive Summary (PDF)