Fear and responsibility:Discourses of obesity and risk in the UK press

Brookes, Gavin and Baker, Paul (2022) Fear and responsibility:Discourses of obesity and risk in the UK press. Journal of Risk Research, 25 (3). pp. 363-378. ISSN 1366-9877

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This paper examines how the UK print media represents risk in reporting about obesity. Using corpus linguistics methods (keywords, collocations and consideration of concordance lines) combined with qualitative discourse analysis, references to risk were analysed in a 36-million-word corpus of articles from the national British press about obesity, published between 2008 and 2017. Two main analytical directions were followed: differences between newspapers (in terms of political affiliation and format) and change over time. Obesity was found to be both a risk factor for diseases like cancer but also itself the consequence of risk factors such as over-eating or not getting enough sleep. When talking about risk, tabloid newspapers tended to discuss the former type of risk, whereas broadsheets focussed on the latter. Left-leaning newspapers tended to focus on the role of powerful institutions, while right-leaning newspapers wrote more about risk in terms of individuals, either focussing on personal responsibility or the role of biological factors in determining an individual’s risk. References to risks relating to obesity increased both in terms of raw frequency and proportional frequency over the decade examined, with the largest increase occurring between 2016 and 2017. The year 2017 was characterised by more reference to scientific research and risks of health conditions that were referred to in dramatic terms (e.g. as a deadly risk), as well as containing more personalised language (e.g. more use of the second person pronoun your). The analysis indicates how notions of risk intersect with neoliberal principles of illness and self-management. In addition, readers receive different messages about risks relating to obesity depending on which newspapers they read, and there is evidence for an increasing reliance on a discourse of fear around obesity in the British national press overall.

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Journal of Risk Research
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11 Dec 2020 20:29
Last Modified:
17 Sep 2023 02:57