Is TV promoting fears about organ and tissue donation?

Donor advocates taking on Hollywood 'myths'

Families who balk at organ donation when faced with the death of a loved one may have been influenced by inaccurate portrayals of organ donation in television programs, Purdue University researchers suggest.

"Organ donation appeared as a primary storyline on entertainment television in more than 80 television episodes of medical dramas, police shows, comedies, and daytime soap operas" in 2004 and 2005, according to Susan Morgan, PhD, associate professor of health communication at Purdue. "We found that none of these appearances presented organ donation in an accurate or positive light."

Morgan says the Purdue study is the most comprehensive look at how organ donation is portrayed on television, and demonstrates that TV gives an inaccurate picture of organ and tissue donation and collection. Morgan says that might be costing lives.

Organ donation stories promote fear

The most commonly portrayed inaccuracies are black markets for organs, doctors not saving a potential donor's life, organs being stolen from patients, and people with money receiving higher priority on waiting lists – all of which can create fear among those who view the programs, Morgan says.

Morgan's study, The Power of Narratives, suggests that inaccurate storylines about organ and tissue donation stop people from registering as organ donors. Organ donation advocates are taking Morgan's findings to Hollywood to encourage more truthful depictions of the procedures surrounding organ and tissue donations and transplants.

"Professor Morgan's research has encouraged us to put Hollywood on alert," according to Tenaya Wallace, director of Donate Life Hollywood, a campaign to eliminate the "stolen kidney" storyline and other inaccuracies from television and film. "The organ and tissue donation and transplant community has been upset by inaccuracies in the past, but we have not taken action. Now we have hard evidence that what viewers think about donation is directly related to what they see in television storylines."

Wallace says the issue is not just about creative license in writing television storylines.

"We want Hollywood writers, producers, and executives to consider the public health impact of their donation storylines," she says.

Morgan reports that television viewers, especially those who had not decided if they would register as donors, were highly influenced by what they saw on TV. She adds that viewers are sometimes ill-equipped to differentiate between reality and storylines about organ donation because they don't always have information or knowledge to counter information they glean from TV.

Donation storylines have appeared in medical and crime dramas including CSI: NY, Numb3rs, House, and Grey's Anatomy, as well as in comedies such as Scrubs and the George Lopez Show. In early 2007, the first television drama centered primarily around the donation and transplantation process, Heartland, debuted.

"Hollywood is looking for drama and inspiration," Wallace points out. "We understand that is why shows are increasingly turning to donation and transplantation as storylines."

To help portray donation and transplantation accurately, Donate Life Hollywood will provide writers, producers, and network executives with real-life stories of donation and a top 10 list of storylines that are most harmful to the public's perception of the donation process. If television shows, movies, or commercials contain any of the top 10, Donate Life Hollywood will mobilize groups and individuals touched by donation to write letters. They also praise shows that are accurate and inspirational. (See "Common myths about organ and tissue donation and transplantation.")

"Similar efforts made a difference for how HIV and AIDS were treated in film and television in the 1980s, and breast cancer before that," Morgan says. "Today, it also can make a difference in how organ donation is depicted."