The following is adapted from a Media Research Center special
report, to be released later this summer, about news media coverage
of risky products and the companies which make and sell them:
It is estimated that about 400,000 Americans die each year from
It is also estimated that about 300,000 Americans die each year
from obesity-related illnesses. And studies show that fully
one-third of Americans (75 million) are overweight.
Given these statistics, it's reasonable to assume that there are
three news stories about dietary fat and the industries that sell
products with dietary fat for every four news stories about tobacco
and the tobacco industry, right?
Wrong. Media Research Center analysts counted every evening news
story during the first six months of 1996 that had to do with
tobacco and every evening news story during the same period that had
to do with obesity and dietary fat. (Shows analyzed were ABC's World
News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today, and NBC
Nightly News.) There were 138 stories about tobacco and the tobacco
industry, all of which portrayed tobacco as a risky product. There
were only 38 stories about dietary fat and obesity which portrayed
fat as risky to consumers, a difference of almost four to one.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that tobacco has been singled
out. Unlike fat, no angle of tobacco or of the tobacco industry went
uncovered during the study period. There were reports, for example,
about increases in teen smoking. NBC's Brian Williams, introducing a
January 25 Nightly News story, told of "a disturbing report out
today on teenage smoking from the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite all the pressures to stop, all the attempts to restrict
cigarette sales, kids in much of this country are picking up the
habit faster than ever." According to NBC's Bob Kur, in the same
story, "Teenagers are part of 47 million smokers nationwide whose
habit costs the country $50 billion in medical care." Bill Clinton's
anti-tobacco photo-ops were also popular news stories. ABC's Peter
Jennings, on the May 7 World News Tonight, reported that "President
Clinton was in a New Jersey classroom warning that 3,000 teenagers
start to smoke every day."
Another big tobacco story: The political donations of the
industry and how those donations allegedly affected politicians'
attitudes and actions toward tobacco. This was especially the case
when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole claimed that, for
some people, smoking isn't addictive. Reason magazine senior editor
Jacob Sullum, writing in the July 29 National Review, asserted that
in such reports, the assumption usually is "that tobacco companies
had given Dole and the Republican Party a lot of money, so he was
clearly in league with the devil." According to Sullum, such reports
assume the industry buys votes and never consider "the possibility
that politicians...might get tobacco money because they support
certain policies, rather than the other way around."
Sullum is right. Linda Douglass, for example, on the June 27 CBS
Evening News told viewers that "Dole now is in the uncomfortable
position of often siding with the tobacco industry just as cigarette
makers are pumping unprecedented sums of money into the Republican
Party." On that same night, NBC's Kur, after quoting the Clinton
campaign's charge that Dole was toeing the tobacco industry line,
pointed out, with a large on-screen graphic, that the industry "gave
nearly $3 million in political contributions last year, 85 percent
of the money to Republicans."
There were also a great many stories about former tobacco
industry executives and scientists admitting that they had known all
along that nicotine is addictive, and numerous lawsuits against the
tobacco industry were deemed of enough national importance to make
the evening news.
In contrast, there were far fewer stories about fat and obesity
and the industries which help produce them. Should tobacco really
warrant so many more stories than fat? How dangerous is obesity?
According to reporters themselves, it is quite dangerous. NBC's Tom
Brokaw said, on the April 29 Nightly News, that "obesity, of course,
is a major health problem in this country. It is estimated that it's
responsible for 300,000 deaths a year from heart disease, high blood
pressure, diabetes and the like." CBS's Jacqueline Adams, on the
April 9 CBS Evening News, reported that "for years doctors have
known that during pregnancy, obesity can cause serious problems like
diabetes and bleeding for the mother. But according to two new
studies in tomorrow's Journal of the American Medical Association,
obesity in the mother can also cause serious problems for the
fetus," including birth defects.
Even one high-fat meal can be dangerous, according to ABC's John
McKenzie. On the May 9 World News Tonight, McKenzie told viewers
about a study conducted at the University of Maryland in which
researchers "found that after a high-fat meal, arteries, when
required to handle an increased flow of blood, could expand on
average only 50 percent of normal. It means that under conditions of
stress and exertion, people who already have constricted arteries
may not get enough blood to the heart."
So why so much more attention to the tobacco industry than to
industries that produce fat? There were never any heated stories on
the evening news about fast-food advertising enticing kids and
others to consume products that may one day kill them. There were no
reporters monitoring the political donations of fast-food restaurant
chains and their trade associations. There were no stories in which
reporters asked food-industry executives if they believed their
products to be harmful. And there were no stories pointing out the
medical-care costs of obesity.
Either the network evening news shows spend too much time
covering tobacco or not enough covering the dangers of obesity and
dietary fat. Either way, one politically incorrect product and
industry is being singled out for intensive news coverage while
other risky products and the industries which produce them are not.