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Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Is TV Good for Our Health?
Providing Accurate Health Information through Hollywood

Buffington headshotHow many shows can you name that are set in the health industry?  Ten?  Fifteen?   Think of “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “ER,” “Scrubs,” “General Hospital,” “Chicago Hope,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Nip/Tuck” – the list goes on and on.  As medically inspired entertainment proliferates, Americans increasingly get their health information from Hollywood’s scriptwriters.  On April 7th, Sandra de Castro Buffington, Director of the Hollywood, Health, and Society program (HH&S) at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, spoke to the Rice and Houston community as part of the Gray/Wawro Lectures in Gender, Health and Well-being.  Polls indicate that over half of viewers believe the information they receive from daytime and primetime television shows, therefore assuring that this information is correct is an important task.  HH&S works with Hollywood scriptwriters, free of charge, to help develop meaningful but accurate storylines about a variety of health topics from HIV to worker safety issues, bioterrorism, heart disease, diabetes, and myriad other issues that fall under health’s broad banner.   

At the time of Buffington’s lecture, HH&S had helped produce over 163 storylines with accurate health information.  One of their most successful endeavors involved a star-studded episode of “ER” in which Susan Sarandon’s character made the difficult decision to allow the donation of her ailing son’s organs.  HH&S reported that at least 10% of viewers who watched that episode were inspired to become donors themselves.  Another such achievement of HH&S involved three episodes of “The Bold and the Beautiful” that followed a character’s physical and emotional battle with AIDS.  The Center for Disease Control, a partner of HH&S, received a larger volume of calls during these episodes than during any other HIV public awareness campaign that year.  This response, Buffington argued, was a sign that HH&S helped to reduce AIDS stigma founded on misinformation about the illness. 

Buffington AudienceThe question and answer section after the lecture was an especially productive example of the candid conversation spaces the Center provides through the Gray/Wawro Lectures.  Among the questions Buffington fielded from audience members, one touched on HH&S’s relationship to health issues upon which American society is decidedly split, namely abortion rights.  Buffington explained that no topic about which writers might ask HH&S is taboo – all are offered consultation, and the topic of abortion is no exception.  In part because the program is a non-profit and they would like to work with as many writers as possible, HH&S does not align itself with any special interest groups and makes every effort to consult without bias.  In the end, Buffington left the audience with a provocative, and perhaps unanswerable question: How does one define ‘accurate’ information?

Video from this lecture is available.