February 20, 2008

Healthy Entertainment

Probing The Power Of Health-Themed Entertainment Media

By James Tella

From television programs like Grey’s Anatomy and House, to films like John Q and Philadelphia, medical themes can make compelling entertainment. But they are also great educational opportunities, as students recently discovered in a unique joint course of the School of Cinematic Arts and The Keck School of Medicine.

Last fall’s CNTV 345: Health Issues in Entertainment Media, one of two core classes in the Keck/Cinematic Arts undergraduate minor “Cinema-Television for the Health Professions,” revealed the myriad ways in which entertainment media can intentionally or inadvertently influence viewers’ opinions and behaviors.

“This course explores the surprisingly powerful relationship between entertainment media and health information worldwide, and helps students see how they can use that power in effective and responsible ways,” said Mary Pickford Chair and Cinematic Arts Production Professor Doe Mayer, who along with Keck Institute for Prevention Research Professor Jean Richardson, taught the class for the first time last semester.

In addition to featuring guest speakers like practicing emergency room doctor and Grey’s Anatomy writer/producer Zoanne Clack,
Guest speakers included practicing emergency room doctor and Grey’s Anatomy writer/producer Zoanne Clack.
the class utilized readings and media such as the feature film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the television movie Miss Evers’ Boys, and the children’s television show Sesame Street.

“There’s this whole breadth of media out there that has a big influence on what the public thinks about health matters,” said Richardson, who was struck by “what a profound impact the visual has on understanding and perceiving a topic.”

Pointing to the in-class viewing of Philadelphia, a film about stigma encountered by a young attorney with AIDS prior to the advent of good treatments, Richardson said that she found it surprising so little research has been done about the impact of such movies on viewers, and that “we still don’t know how much like that has contributed to rolling back stigma in our society.”

On a lighter note, the class examined the 1992 “Homer’s Triple Bypass” episode of The Simpsons where Homer suffers a heart attack.
On a lighter note, the class examined the 1992 “Homer’s Triple Bypass” episode of The Simpsons where Homer suffers a heart attack but for lack of insurance seeks out a quack physician. “The number of little segues in that one show brought serious issues to light,” Richardson added. “How it gets an audience to be emotionally connected is critical to understanding how society perceives these important problems.”

Broadcast Journalism Senior Marissa Stoap, one of the 13 undergraduates that included no filmmakers but students with concentrations ranging from health promotions and pre-med to journalism, biology, ophthalmology and public relations, said, “I feel more equipped to view entertainment with a critical eye and to think about what messages are portrayed realistically and what health ideas are used to simply move the plot along or to amplify the drama of film/TV.”

Looking for a powerful way to illustrate entertainment’s influence, Mayer and Richardson examined how an episode of The Bold and The Beautiful motivated viewers to find out more information about HIV/AIDS. In 2001, the popular day-time drama featured a storyline in which a main character discloses his HIV-positive health status to his girlfriend. Within 24 hours, calls to a toll-free HIV/AIDS hotline topped over 5,000 attempts—far eclipsing the number of calls made to the same number after the subject was addressed on segments of 60 Minutes, MTV and via a surgeon general’s public service announcement.

“Just think about the target audience of that show,” said Mayer. “Women, and many who don’t have access to good health care or reliable information.”

“I realize that if I am to effectively teach a wide population in my own career, I will have to be inside the head of the viewer and know how to respond when a person thinks, ‘Why do I care?’” said Senior Brett Mendenhall, who is majoring in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Studies Public Health and hopes to focus on creating HIV prevention programs.

Both of the course instructors agree that there is a pressing need to continually examine media and how it affects some of our most urgent health problems.

“This course was a real opportunity for Doe and myself to look at the same material from both of our professional perspectives and learn from each other,” remarked Richardson. “As a teacher, I found that challenging and enjoyable.”