How has the media framed the issue?

Given the level of complexity involved in linking soda to weight gain, and soda taxes to weight loss, it is important to distinguish the debate that takes place among academics and the one which takes place in the public domain and in public policy. Here, the role of the media is crucial in shaping the public narrative and informing policy deliberation.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a sister organization to STATS conducted a study of how the media covered soda taxes between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2010, identifying 340 relevant news items from major news sources. In order to determine how the scientific evidence was presented to the public, the study looked at the experts who were cited on the topic. There were 122 news items in which a total of 200 expert sources were cited. As the study noted:

“One of the most notable findings was the concentration of sourcing. Two individuals accounted for almost two-thirds (65%) of all citations of named experts. These individuals were Dr. Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who accounted for 40 percent of all named sources; and Dr.Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who accounted for 25 percent. Finishing a distant third with six percent of citations was Dr. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina.  No other individual was cited more than twice.

This source concentration reflects the widespread publicity given to two scientific papers published in 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which developed a case for using soda taxes as a means of reducing obesity. Brownell was lead author of both; one was co-authored with Frieden, the other with Popkin and several others…”

In short, a handful of leading advocates for soda taxes dominated the media coverage of the issue. What makes this troubling is that the media largely ignored studies published during the same time period which called the efficacy of these tax proposals into question. And despite the centrality of economic questions, economists only accounted for one out of every eight experts quoted on the issue.

When the opinions of all the experts cited in the media coverage were aggregated, 91 percent of opinions agreed that taxes would reduce obesity, while nine percent disagreed.


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