Panel Paper: Framing the Consequences of Childhood Obesity to Shape Public Opinion

Friday, November 9, 2012 : 10:45 AM
Hanover A (Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Gollust, University of Minnesota, Jeff Niederdeppe, Cornell University and Colleen L. Barry, Johns Hopkins University

It has become a convention in policy and media discourse to frame the problem of childhood obesity by emphasizing its consequences—such as on children’s long-term health, health care costs, and even the readiness of the U.S. military. Indeed, research-based policy analyses have generated important data about the consequences of obesity that supports these messages. This strategy, in theory, should mobilize heightened policymaker and public response to the problem by casting a wide net to engage subgroups who might otherwise be uninterested in the issue; however, this theory has not been empirically tested.  We reviewed news media and policy documents to identify 11 types of messages about the consequences of childhood obesity that are commonly used in descriptions of the problem (i.e., mortality, health, psychosocial, bullying/teasing, economic, and social disparities).  Using the survey firm Knowledge Networks, we recruited a sample of 444 nationally-representative U.S. adults in 2011 to evaluate these 11 messages.  Respondents evaluated how much they agreed with the messages and how believable and strong each message was (using 7-point Likert scales), and we measured differences in message evaluation by respondents’ political characteristics.  Respondents evaluated messages describing the long-term health and economic consequences of childhood obesity as most compelling, and they evaluated a message describing the unequal distribution of obesity by race/ethnicity and socio-economic status as least compelling.  Democrats rated all 11 messages as stronger than did Republicans.  However, Republicans rated a message describing the threat of obesity to national security as a relatively strong reason for the government to address childhood obesity, and they were more likely than Democrats to evaluate a message describing the consequences of obesity on childhood bullying as comparatively stronger.  In February 2012 we fielded a second web-based survey with an experimental design, randomly assigning respondents to read the most promising messages yielded from the pilot stage (health, economic, bullying, and national defense consequences) or control messages and measuring respondents’ opinions about obesity and responsibility for addressing the problem. Emphasizing the connection between bullying and childhood obesity significantly boosted public assessments of the importance of the problem, but reduced public assignment of responsibility to the government.  Democrats’ beliefs that government, school, and industry actors should have responsibility for the problem were more susceptible to framing than were Republicans’ beliefs, particularly for the health and health care costs arguments.  None of the frames shifted respondents’ strong beliefs that parents should be responsible for the childhood obesity problem.   These results provide some support for the conventional wisdom that describing a variety of social, economic, and health-related consequences of obesity will elicit more attention to the problem by Republicans, who would otherwise disfavor government intervention into health issues. This research provides insight into the childhood obesity political process as well as how the dissemination of key messages from policy analyses can shape the public and policy agenda.