Online news reports about obesity tend to be accompanied by unflattering or even negative images of obese people, research published online early this month in the Journal of Health Communication finds. And those portrayals may contribute in a big way to societal and personal bias against the overweight.

Researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity examined photos from five major on-line news sites, grading each for the way it depicted obese people. Did it show them engaged in healthful activities, or eating junk food? Was the obese person shown from the front, or from the side or back? Was part of the person’s body shown unclothed, as in a big belly hanging out? Was the obese person pictured as an expert, a lawyer, a doctor? Or just a some poor fat schlub? And did the person in the picture have his head excised from the image?

Nearly three quarters of the 479 images analyzed cast obese people in a dim light, featuring at least one of these characteristics. (None of the images was from The Washington Post’s site; the study excluded this site because so few of its archived online stories were accompanied by photos.)

Such negative depictions of obese people on the Web -- where, the study notes, many Americans look for health information -- may subtly influence people’s perceptions of overweight people and encourage bias against them, the study argues. Beyond that, these negative portrayals may reinforce overweight people’s bad feelings about themselves -- which, the study points out, is not likely to inspire them to do anything about their weight.

The Rudd Center’s general stance is that personal responsibility for managing one’s weight can only go so far in a society that’s so saturated with media messages promoting junk food, so replete with fast food and so hard for those inclined toward overweight to navigate. Changing that environment, the folks at Rudd suggest, might give people a fighting chance at maintaining a healthful weight.

To that end, the Rudd Center has devised media guidelines for depicting obese people in news stories. It’s even assembled a library of photographs showing overweight people wearing professional clothing and looking like, well, regular, respectable people. They’re available to the media, free of charge.

Do you think the Rudd researchers are on to something with this? Do you agree that obese people tend to be poorly portrayed in news photos?

Does that treatment affect your attitude toward overweight people? Or is this just a bunch of hooey?