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Newspaper reporting of adolescent bariatric surgery increases obesity stigma

Investigators from Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, have concluded that way newspapers report on adolescent bariatric surgery may increase the stigma surrounding adolescent obesity, and therefore limit the acceptability of specific treatments such as bariatric surgery.

The researchers highlighted that bariatric surgery in adolescents has gained significant coverage over the last decade, including articles which cite health-care professionals (HCPs), figures of authority to whom the general public might be attentive. Therefore, how adolescent bariatric surgery is framed in the news media, especially those that reach a wide audience, such as high-volume newspapers, might conceivably shape the public opinion on this issue, including moral judgments. As a result, they analysed how newspaper articles portrayed adolescent bariatric surgery, with attention to the language used and moral arguments made.

They identified 537 articles (205 UK and 332 US newspaper articles) and 38 articles (26 from the UK and 12 from the US) were included. In the UK, most articles (62%) were published by national tabloids, whereas the majority of US coverage was in local newspapers (75%).

Four main themes were identified through thematic analysis, (1) defining the burden of adolescent obesity, (2) sparking moral outrage, (3) sensation-seeking, and (4) raising ethical issues.

They explained that the first theme relates to a general discussion on adolescent obesity, focusing on obesity statistics and the causes of obesity. Although not strictly normative in nature, the undertone was not neutral, indicating a moral evaluation of the current situation or judgment on the lifestyle responsible for obesity. They noted that newspaper articles often contained negative discourse on obesity in adolescents and regarding surgery, or specifically attributed blame to adolescents or their parents.

In addition, the language used to describe adolescents with obesity, irrespective of being considered for surgery, was often derogatory and stigmatising. Interestingly, in articles in which bariatric surgery was presented as a key therapeutic option, the ‘radical’ or ‘controversial’ nature of the procedure was emphasised. However, despite frequent negative views on obesity, and the criticism of surgery as a quick fix in some articles, most articles advocated for surgery as a tool to treat adolescents with severe obesity, the authors noted.

The researchers stressed the need for both HCPs and journalists to be mindful of how the use of language from certain registers might frame the topic. In particular, HCPs can leverage this opportunity to stimulate a more constructive and well-balanced discussion by providing accurate information to journalists and thereby become actively involved in destigmatizing health issues.

“Despite frequent citing of experts and studies on the efficacy, safety and unmet need of surgery, obesity and surgery in adolescents were often stigmatised and sensationalized with (prospective) patients depicted as looking for an easy way out in the form of a solution brought by others (HCPs and the public in the form of taxpayers), in contrast to one they would have to work for,” they concluded. “Representing patients this way may contribute to the stigma surrounding bariatric surgery, particularly in adolescents.”

The findings were reported in the paper, ‘‘A radical operation’ – a thematic analysis of newspaper framing of bariatric surgery in adolescents’, published in BMC Public Health. To access this paper, please click here


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