October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB5

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Content Analysis of Media Coverage of the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The study reported here examined the nature of the nutrition messages communicated by the media about the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Upon the release of the 1995 Guidelines, a mass media content analysis was conducted to determine the nature of the media messages communicated to the public. Media channels included were national and local newspapers, national television news and news type programs, magazines, and National Public Radio (NPR). Findings indicate that the Dietary Guidelines are not covered adequately by the media. Nutrition educators are encouraged to take a more active role in making their expertise available to the various media channels.

Debra Palmer Keenan
Assistant Professor
Internet Address: keenan@aesop.rutgers.edu

Rayane AbuSabha
Research Collaborator
Internet Address: rayanez@netzero.net

Department of Nutritional Sciences
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Natalie G. Robinson
Project Coordinator, Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center
Providence, Rhode Island
Internet Address: NRobinson@lifespan.org


The mass media are the primary vehicles used by the lay public to obtain health and nutrition information (Shine, O'Reilly, & O'Sullivan, 1997). The latest American Dietetic Association Nutrition Trends 2000 survey (The American Dietetic Association, 2000) emphasizes the importance of the various media as sources of nutrition information. Survey results indicate that television and magazines were the two primary sources mentioned by 48% and 47% of respondents, respectively, followed by newspapers (18%) and reference/general books (12%).

The power of the mass media is apparent and easily explained. The various media channels reach the majority of Americans on a daily basis. For instance, more than 98% of total U.S. households own a television (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996), and on any given night, over 91 million Americans are watching their televisions (Nielsen Media Research, 1993). Such statistics show that the media are very efficient at reaching consumers. They require minimal cost per contact and are geographically accessible to most people. In addition, they offer consumers nutrition information in many different forms and with multiple contacts to reinforce the message.

The media increase public awareness and have a significant influence on people's thinking and decision-making about food and nutrition (Keenan, AbuSabha, Sigman-Grant, Achterberg, & Ruffing, 1999; AbuSabha, 1998; Stuart & Achterberg, 1997; Van Woerkum, 1997).

For nutrition educators, working with the media has become a professional obligation (Nowlin, 1994). To effectively fulfill this obligation, nutrition professionals must first understand the nature and characteristics of the nutrition messages conveyed in the media.


The purpose of the study reported here was to examine the characteristics of the nutrition messages communicated by the media about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines are revised every 5 years and serve as the backbone for dietary recommendation advice made to the American public. Considering the recent release of the Year 2000 Guidelines (USDA & DHHS, 2000), nutrition and health educators need to consider the impact the media will have on their clients.


The 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released on January 2, 1996. On that date, a copy of the Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans (USDA & DHHS, 1995a) document was obtained from the World Wide Web (USDA & DHHS, 1995b) and was reviewed to establish keywords for media searches.

The mass media content analysis was conducted in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota from January 2 through March 2, 1996 (Robinson, 1997). Media channels included in the analysis were national and local newspapers, national television news and news type programs, magazines, and National Public Radio (NPR).

Media channels, databases, and keywords used for the searches are presented in Table 1. Local television stations were not continuously monitored because of the lack of resources to follow several television stations, 24 hours daily, for the 2 months period of the study.

Journal Graphics (1996) was the database used to monitor television news programs and NPR. This database limits the searches to pre-established topic codes. Therefore, for television and radio programs, topic codes instead of keywords were selected for the analysis (Table 1).

Table 1
Mass Media Search Approach Covering the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Table One: Media Searched and Keywords Used

Media citations were reviewed by the principle investigator and three graduate students. Based upon the citations, the group convened to decide if each article or broadcast either:

  • Conveyed message(s) of the Dietary Guidelines;
  • Did not convey any messages of the Dietary Guidelines; or
  • The citation was not detailed enough, and the complete article needed to be obtained in order for a decision to be made.

After reading the article, a decision was made whether or not any messages from the Dietary Guidelines were conveyed.

A mass media log was compiled to determine:

  • The number of times the Dietary Guidelines, as a whole, as well as each of the specific guidelines were covered (Reports containing several guideline messages were counted under each message.);
  • The total number of articles or broadcasts that appeared in January, February, and the first 2 days of March;
  • The number of times the Dietary Guidelines were conveyed in each medium (Reports discussing multiple guideline messages were only counted once.); and
  • The content and characteristics of the media coverage as it related to each guideline.


During the 60-day monitoring period, 118 reports were published containing messages about the Dietary Guidelines. Of those, 64 reports discussed at least two guidelines, resulting in a total of 185 guideline messages conveyed.

The majority of the stories appeared in January (n=66) rather than February (n=38), with four additional stories published in the January/February issues of bimonthly magazines. A total of 10 articles were retrieved in the 2 days of coverage in March, mostly from magazines.

A total of 49 reports about the Dietary Guidelines were retrieved from magazines, 37 from newspapers, 29 from television, and 3 from NPR. Table 2 lists the total number of Dietary Guidelines articles per researched magazine and newspaper. The Cable News Network (CNN) channel aired the majority of the television broadcasts (n=21).

Table 2
Total Number of Articles Covering the Dietary Guidelines for Americans per Researched Magazine and Newspaper

Table Two: a list of magazines and newspapers and the number of articles found in each

The Guidelines' release was reported in 22 stories, all of which appeared in January, with the most coverage aired on CNN (n=9) or published in newspapers (n=8). Content analysis revealed that, upon the release of the Guidelines document, reports simply stated the new guidelines and addressed the changes from the previous version.

One of the changes that attracted the most media attention was the alcohol recommendation, discussed in 10 of the 22 reports (Table 3). The coverage of the alcohol recommendation continued even after the initial period when the guidelines were released, with 8 additional stories appearing in February. Most of the reports about alcohol discussed how its consumption in moderation may help reduce the risks for certain chronic diseases.

Table 3
Media Coverage of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from January 2 to March 2, 1996

Table Three: Topics picked up by the media and comments about that coverage

Other modifications to the Guidelines that caught media attention were the weight and exercise recommendation (discussed in 10 of 22 reports), the new weight chart that does not account for weight gain with age (5 of 22), and the text recognizing vegetarian diets (5 of 22). The guidelines about variety, sodium, and sugar received little attention (Table 3).

Of the seven guidelines, the dietary fat recommendation received the most media coverage, appearing in a total of 55 reports (Table 3). However, this guideline was not fully communicated. Only one report mentioned saturated fat, and six discussed cholesterol. In addition, this guideline was often communicated as a strategy to lose weight (19 of 55), with popular themes proclaiming how low fat foods did not have to mean foods low in flavor and recommending the use of herbs and spices in cooking as a substitute for fat.

A number of reports (18 of 55) discussed the association between dietary fat and chronic diseases. Most of the stories about dietary fat appeared in newspapers (n=22), followed by magazines (n=18), CNN (n=11), and television morning programs (n=4).

The weight and physical activity guideline was discussed, at least in part, in 52 reports (Table 3). Most of these references focused on weight loss solely by means of dietary restriction, with exercise mentioned in only 17 of the 52 reports. Several of the articles or broadcasts (14 of 52) included testimonials of weight loss success stories. Tips, strategies, or recipes to promote weight loss were also included in several of the reports (n=18).

By far, the majority of the reports regarding this guideline appeared in magazines (n=33), with 6 of the 33 published in Weight Watchers, 3 in Family Circle, 2 in Prevention, and 2 in Redbook. Controlling portion size was mentioned in only 2 articles, both published in Weight Watchers magazine.

The fruits, vegetables, and grains guideline was discussed in 26 reports, mainly in newspapers (n=15) and magazines (n=8). Nine of the 26 stories did not discuss grain products, and only 2 stories mentioned dietary fiber. Topics covered varied from promoting weight loss, to decreasing the risk for chronic diseases, to warning Americans that they are not meeting their fruits and vegetables needs. Two articles discussed a research study findings that beta-carotene supplements were not a substitute for fruits and vegetables in cancer prevention.

Very rarely were nutrition and health professionals cited in the reports. Research scientists were featured in 7 reports, medical doctors in 6 reports, and registered dietitians in 5 reports. Four articles or broadcasts mentioned "diet experts" without further specification about their credentials. Finally, 15 reports included negative messages that were based on fear or guilt. The majority of these negative messages (12 of 15) appeared in newspapers.

Implications and Recommendations

Findings from this research indicate that the different Dietary Guidelines recommendations did not receive the same degree of media coverage. For instance, most of the 22 reports featuring the release of the new Guidelines document were discussed in terms of one of the four following subjects:

  • Alcohol was now considered to be beneficial;
  • Exercise should now be a daily activity;
  • Vegetarian diets were sanctioned; and/or
  • Weight gain with age was no longer permissible.

Considering the characteristics of what makes "news" (Newsom & Wollert, 1988), the contents of these stories are not surprising. Newsom and Wollert (1988) describe newsworthy information as being unusual, reflective of change, interesting, timely, informational, impactful, and/or surprising.

Therefore, we presume that the media considered the aforementioned changes to the Guidelines as newsworthy messages. The alcohol recommendation especially received much of the media coverage making headlines, such as "Good news on drinking, fries with that please" (New York Times, January 7, 1996), and "Toasting yourself?" (Men's Health, January/February, 1996).

Besides being new, another likely explanation for the alcohol guideline making big news is the novelty that a behavior, typically identified as "unhealthy," is now declared to foster good health. Also, unlike most nutrition messages usually perceived to result in a potential reduction in enjoyment, this recommendation is allowing consumers to engage in a gratifying behavior.

Of the seven dietary guidelines (USDA & DHHS, 1995a), decreasing fat intake and losing or maintaining weight were, by far, the two recommendations with the most media coverage. Given the public's interest in losing weight and in lowering their fat intake (The American Dietetic Association, 2000; Food Marketing Institute, 1995), these two guidelines most likely receive much of the media coverage year-round.

Unfortunately, the dietary fat guideline was not completely communicated by the media. There was almost no mention of specifics regarding intake of saturated fat or of any other types of fat. Possibly, the characteristics of the media in communicating simple and short messages (Holli & Calabrese, 1998; Nowlin, 1994; Bal & Foerster, 1991) provide an explanation for the exclusion of saturated fat from the reports. Explaining the different types of dietary fat may be too complicated and confusing to the public. As a result, the media purposely avoid delving into the particularities of the topic.

The fact remains that dietary fats are not discussed appropriately in the media. If the public is receiving most of its nutrition information from the various media sources, it is no wonder consumers' knowledge of fats and cholesterol is poor (Neuhouser et al., 1999; Reichler & Dalton, 1998; Schwartz & Borra, 1997; Plous et al., 1995; Achterberg, 1994). Nutrition and health professionals need to work closely with the media to improve the coverage on dietary fats.

One of the limitations of the present study is that television programs monitored did not include an analysis of local news programs; therefore, television coverage of the Dietary Guidelines may have been underestimated.

It is possible that a number of local stations' news included their own reports about the different guidelines. Due to time limitations, it is unlikely that these reports would have been long enough to provide complete coverage of the complex nutrition topics of the guidelines. On the other hand, if long time segments (30 minutes or longer) were set aside to thoroughly discuss the guidelines, they were not captured by this study. This limitation should be considered when interpreting the findings of this research.

In conclusion, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition policy document of the U.S. Government, is not covered adequately by the media. Nutrition and health educators need to take a more active role in contacting the media and making their knowledge and expertise available to the various media channels.

In addition, public and private nutrition organizations should be closely involved in bringing the guidelines report to the forefront of the news. Some recommendations about accomplishing this feat include:

  • The Dietary Guidelines press kit should be written in a newsworthy fashion such that the messages are short, simple, interesting, or surprising.
  • Discussions of the rationales for or against the inclusion of certain guidelines should be highlighted (e.g., the sodium guideline; variance in the dietary fat guideline for children; the new food safety guideline). These discussions may be of interest to consumers and would help explain future changes in nutrition policy.
  • Specific "key players" should be identified (e.g., nutrition spokespersons, Guidelines Committee members) to be contacted by the media for comments upon the release of the new Guidelines. These key players can help respond to the media in a well thought out and newsworthy fashion.
  • Nutrition professionals need to become more proactive and work closely with media professionals to ensure that the messages are interesting as well as accurate. However, due to the nature of the messages transmitted by the media (i.e., simple, short and dramatic), nutrition professionals should not depend on the mass media to motivate individuals to change their behavior (DHHS, 1992).


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