Celebrating the Impact of Healthy Media Depictions

On September 27 in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of attending the Sentinel Awards, an annual celebration of television programs that entertain millions but also help viewers gain insights into serious health and social issues. These are popular shows that we (or some subset of we) love watching, shows whose writers artfully weave factual information into compelling storylines. The awards are sponsored by our Hollywood, Health & Society colleagues at The Norman Lear Center. Categories include documentaries, talk shows, comedies, reality shows, children’s programming and dramas.

Highlights among the evening’s celebrity guests was Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) star Kelly McCreary, who spoke eloquently about learning of the rare type of breast cancer to which her character’s mother succumbed. Grey’s Producer Bill Harper, upon accepting the award, shared that a personal friend had pursued medical treatment after watching the storyline, which resulted in her receiving early, life-saving intervention.

Vera Herbert from the hit show This Is Us (NBC) accepted a Sentinel Award for a riveting plotline dealing with mental health issues, specifically panic attacks. Also celebrated were stories that made us laugh while informing, as awardee Laura Gutin Peterson from black-ish (ABC) accepted for the show’s exploration of preeclampsia among pregnant women. The unscripted series Born This Way (A&E) received an award for documenting the lives of teens with Down syndrome; and a story around the new Sesame Street (HBO) character Julia, who is diagnosed with autism, was celebrated as providing a tool for modeling social behavior among children.

Years of research in the social sciences tells us that children imitate behavior they see onscreen. We also know viewers gain medical knowledge from stories they see on television: a recent Pew report revealed that 83% of Hispanics studied received medical information from media. A study by the Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society about a transgender storyline on the show Royal Pains revealed that the more shows with transgender characters viewers saw, the more positive their attitudes toward transgender people and policies were. In the case of Sesame Street, the “neuronormal” characters were helped to understand that a new friend’s seemingly eccentric behavior was due to her autism. How many children watching this show will now feel more comfortable interacting with an autistic classmate? In the case of Grey’s Anatomy, we know that at least one woman’s life was saved due to the information gleaned from the show. How many more viewers might these health and issue-oriented storylines impact?

At the Media Impact Project, we spend our days considering ways to measure precisely how a television show, a video experience, a game, a movie or a news series impacts audiences. We ask such questions as: What information did viewers learn and apply to their own lives after watching? Did people take action after viewing? Which storylines spur more viewers to take actions such as seeking medical treatment, or “liking” a story on a Facebook page, or signing-up to volunteer for a cause, or donating money? Answers to these questions could help writers, directors and producers create more meaningful stories that truly engage their audiences, and could assist anyone interested in media’s role in our lives gain more nuanced understanding of the issues. In future blogs, myself and my colleagues on the MIP team will be sharing insights on our projects and our methods to quantify media’s impact on viewers. Stay tuned!

The full list of Sentinel Honorees is here.

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