On untruths and omissions

Working as a fat activist means you are often the sole voice in a space suggesting that being fat is not the worst thing in the world. You are criticized regularly for your insistence that the relationship between weight and health is more complex than most people understand. You are patronized when you suggest that fat people are the best individuals to share what a lived fat experience is like (rather than, say, a thin person wearing a fat suit). And you deal daily with concern trolls,

“Of course people shouldn’t be discriminated against based on their body size, but ….. [fill in your favourite concern troll justification here]”.

It doesn’t help matters that the media, including the news media (whose job it is to inform), engage in untruths and omissions around fatness. Putting aside the other egregious errors they make when reporting on issues of body size (headless fatties, only presenting one side of the story), the biggest disservices they do are the untruths and omissions present in most pieces about body size.

For example, in most stories about obesity/weight/fatness in New Zealand, it is reported that New Zealand is the third fattest country in the world (behind the United States of America and Australia). This is not true. According to data on obesity from the World Health Organisation, New Zealand does not make the top 20 (of the 193 countries with reported data). New Zealand does happen to be the third fattest country in the OECD (a consortium of 30 economically developed countries) – and while some may argue that those countries are the only countries that matter, it doesn’t change the fact that it is untrue when a news outlet reports that NZ is the third fattest country in the world.

When the Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections conference was featured on the cover of the Dominion Post in July, the story contained the incorrect statement that NZ is the third fattest country in the world. When I followed up with the reporter, I was told that they had pulled the evidence for the statement from a previous story published in the paper, but took my point. So, because an earlier piece in the Dom Post had claimed NZ to be the third fattest in the world, then that was enough evidence to claim it again.

I did not see a correction run on the error– and the Dominion Post continues to embrace this untruth.

A colleague of mine recently expressed his own dismay over this phenomenon. Andrew had recently been interviewed for a story about the size of airplane seats, and had corrected the reporter when he (Matt Stewart of the Dominion Post) incorrectly remarked that NZ was the third fattest country in the world. Even after he was corrected, the piece ran with the false information. Andrew sent him a follow-up email (as shared in the blog piece, ‘More media porkies’), but as you can see – the piece has not been updated to reflect the false statement.

And the cycle continues…

Perhaps the most damage done by the news media on this topic is their refusal to accurately present the evidence on weight loss or engage with the evidence at all. Empirical data has shown weight loss attempts – whether through diet, exercise, lifestyle change, etc – to fail in 95% of individuals. Almost all individuals who attempt to lose weight are unable to achieve a meaningful (more than 10 kilos) and permanent (longer than 5 years) reduction in weight. And yet, this is rarely included in any story you see about obesity, fatness, dieting, etc. When was the last time you read a piece where weight loss was part of the story – and the 5% success rate was included? This glaring omission reinforces the belief that fat people could stop being fat if they simply tried hard enough. It reinforces the indignation of those with anti-fat attitudes, and the shame of those who have failed to reduce their body weight.

I am not suggesting that the news media are solely responsible for the hysteria that surrounds the obesity rhetoric in our world. And I am not suggesting that it is the news media’s responsibility to educate people on the very complex nature between our weight and our health; on the relationship between our bodies and our lived experiences; on the problematic nature of suggesting that people have a moral obligation to be healthy.

I am suggesting that the standard for evidence be more than whether it has been published or used before by the same media. I am suggesting that the news media has an obligation to recognize their own bias and fat hatred, and how this shapes the pieces they produce. And I am suggesting that they have an obligation to do more than simply reinforce the status quo, without asking critical questions or allowing for multiple perspectives to be included in their presentation of the story. We could move the conversation around fatness and body size leaps and bounds if the news media would stop with the untruths and omissions.