On irresponsible reporting (just another day in the fatpocalypse)

“‘Fat people should be fined’ – experts say” reads the headline of a story posted on the NZ Herald website this afternoon. It’s yet another example of irresponsible reporting on fatness by the NZ media.

The story gets a lot wrong, including that the study in question doesn’t say anything about fat people being fined (in fact, the word ‘fine[d]’ is not used in the 12 page article). Other falsehoods include the claim that global obesity levels are increasing, and that “exercise and healthy eating are the key to reversing this trend”. (Go ahead and find the science that demonstrates that diet and exercise result in permanent – more than 5yrs – meaningful – more than 10kilos – weight loss. Go ahead. When you find it, send it to me). The Herald story then continues to talk about the key to weight loss that is found in the study.

Unfortunately for the Herald, the study has nothing to do with weight loss. And the scientists didn’t conclude anything about the efficacy of fining fat people to lose weight. Or even exercise. What they did conclude is that the potential to lose a reward was the best motivator for getting the fat people in the study to achieve a set number of steps per day. The researchers wanted to apply behavioural economics to workplace wellness programmes.

Specifically, there were four groups:

  • The control group didn’t receive anything
  • The gain incentive group received $1.40 each day they achieved their steps
  • The lotto incentive had the potential to receive $1.40 each day they achieved their steps
  • The loss incentive group was given $42 at the start of the research, and then lost $1.40 for every day they didn’t achieve their steps

So, not about weight loss. It was about achieving steps. And in their conclusions, the scientists don’t talk about the efficacy of fining fatties to achieve the steps. It’s not about fines at all – or even rewards – it is about immediate gratification and the incentive to not lose what you’ve gained. How does the Herald get this so wrong?!

The Herald piece even includes this,

Senior study author Dr Kevin Volpp told the Daily Mail: “Our findings demonstrate that the potential of losing a reward is a more powerful motivator.”

The quote, from the senior study author, isn’t that fining people is the key to anything. But that the potential of losing a reward is the motivator. And nowhere does it mention weight loss. Nowhere in the results. Nowhere in the conclusion. Nowhere in any of the quotes from the scientists reported by the Herald.

This isn’t to say that the study itself isn’t problematic. Workplace wellness programmes are incredibly problematic. Especially when they focus on fat people, rather than encouraging wellness in the workplace for people of all sizes. Alida at Fit is a Feminist Issue summarises the major issues with workplace wellness programmes (including the mounting evidence that they fail to be effective in meeting their goals). She writes,

Are the health habits of employees who are off the clock really the business of employers? Attempting to alter these habits might seem unduly invasive, even if it does save the company money by reducing healthcare costs. It isn’t appropriate for a company to incentivize a certain behavior simply because it saves them money. For example, pregnancy and childbirth incur healthcare costs, but this doesn’t mean that employers can reward employees who do not get pregnant, or financially penalize those who do.

The step study (published in the Annals of Internal Medicine) notes that across the groups the mean steps achieved were lower than the goal of 7k, and chalk that up to their participants being highly sedentary. One thing that is striking is they don’t even bother to engage with the possibility that achieving 7k steps assumes the physical ability to achieve these comfortably. Of course, many workplace wellness programmes (and narratives from supporters) completely ignore ability; the assumption is that all workers are able to engage in these programmes. A great read about the ableism inherent in workplace wellness programmes is this piece from The Fat Personal Trainer. Theresa reminds us,

Not all disabilities are visible, and employers are not entitled to medical information about employees’ disabilities unless accommodations are needed to do the actual job. For example, if Susie in Accounting has Crohn’s Disease and can’t walk a mile immediately after lunch because it would take her dangerously far away from a desperately-needed toilet, her employer is not entitled to that information. So when Susie’s boss jumps on the “walking meetings” bandwagon, Susie now has a terrible choice to make: 1) She can share her deeply private and embarrassing digestive horrors with her boss; or 2) she can be labeled “not a team player” on her next annual review because she refused to participate in this “wellness initiative” sponsored by her employer. Congratulations, boss! You have taken a well-performing employee and made her body a barrier to success for no reason.


Towards the end of the piece, the NZ Herald comes closer to accurately reporting the science. But who is reading towards the end? Or remembering much past that soundbite that “experts have concluded that fining fat people is the answer” (to the fatpocalypse)? It’s poor reporting. And dangerous.

It feeds into the existing narrative that fat people should suffer punitive damages for the size of their bodies. That they should be charged more for health insurance, airplane seats, education, housing – simply for existing. Even conversations around punitive measures against behaviours, like a sugar tax, are framed within a curbing obesity narrative (because only fat people consume sugar – or sugar is only a problem when it leads to obesity).

The Herald has a responsibility to accurately report on issues, and to take extra caution when what they are reporting reinforces the oppression of vulnerable people. Reporting that experts claim that fining fat people [is the key to weight loss] isn’t only inaccurate; it’s irresponsible.