Over at Media, Culture & Health, Steven Gorelick notes that a story on salt and the food industry, which appeared on page A1 of the print NY Times on Sunday, would not have made the front page in the past.
What has changed? How does the story of wrangling over the sodium content of American food merit space in the main news sections of the most influential media — even the front pages of the NY Times or LA Times?
1. One answer is that health occupies much of the American conversation today. A visitor from another planet watching our TV news shows or reading the main newspapers would have to be forgiven for thinking that Americans are dying from a multitude of irrepressible disease threats. We can’t seem to stop talking about how to improve our health.
(In fact, as Michael Haines notes at the Economic History Association website, U.S. life expectancy almost doubled between 1850 and 1960, from 39.5 years to 70.7 years; since then it has increased slowly, and is now estimated to be about 78.2 years. In other words, health wasn’t a matter of news much during the time when longevity was improving dramatically, in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th. By the time health became a cultural preoccupation, the majority of Americans were living well past middle age.)
2. Another answer, perhaps more important is that when we talk about health today we mean personal responsibility.
When I began studying epidemiology, in the late 1970s, public health essentially meant disease control. Yes, lip service was paid to so-called health promotion — much was made of the World Health Organization’s definition of health, promulgated in 1946:
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
But no metric for complete well-being was widely recognized. And the usual epidemiologic measures of incidence and mortality rates, life expectancy, and so forth seemed to work just fine as ways of understanding why some groups of people lived longer and more capable lives, while others lived miserably and died young.
Sometime since then, the health sector, including public health, has turned to individual responsibility as the key to well-being.
If each of us is responsible for his or her own health, then it’s our own fault if we get sick. Naturally, advice abounds: buckle up, use a condom, eat less fat, know your cholesterol level, wash your hands, use mosquito repellent containing DEET, wear sunblock, eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day, lower your stress.
The advice adds up to this: know your limits. Federally sponsored research tells us that self-control is ontagious.
The personal-responsibility view of health says, “control your appetites.”
3. But let’s think about another change: more people are concerned about the American diet. As noted last week, the food movement has given us ways to think about eating that go beyond the tiresome story of obesity and hypertension — Beyond Fat and Salt, you could say.
Of course, the main media outlets still tell the food story in Fat-and-Salt language, as the news articles in the NY Times, LA Times, and others show. It’s the food industry vs. the foodies, or the food industry vs. public health, or the food industry and public health vs. appetites — anyway, somebody against somebody in the name of health.
The media aren’t quite past obesity and hypertension yet. But as the culture moves beyond obsessive self-inspection in the name of health, no doubt media will, too.
This entry was posted on Thursday, June 3rd, 2010 at 10:29 am and is filed under Behavior, Disease, Health Professions, Narratives, News, obesity, public health, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.