Embedded health messages on TV shows

I’m watching a recap of last night’s Desperate Housewives and in one scene towards the end, Gabby tells her therapist that her reason for wanting to protect children is because she was molested by her stepfather. This story-line reminded me of two things. One, just today the principal investigator on one of my projects said she became interested in how to use the media in public health campaigns with wanting to be part of a team that places health messages in TV shows. The second, is that there is a group of people working on doing just that. The scene definitely reminded me of the work of The Normal Lear Center at the University of Southern California my (my alma mater) and specifically Hollywood Health & Society.

HHS often works with CDC experts to give accurate health information to television producers and others in the media and entertainment industry for use within their plots lines. In a conversation last year with HHS director Sandra de Castro Buffington, she stressed that HHS does not tell writers what to say, rather, they encourage them to include as accurate as possible any information on the topics. After all, many studies have shown that American consumers gather a lot of their health information from scripted shows. Past CDC and HHS studies have involved working with daytime soap operas on HIV and prime time television shows to highlight childhood obesity.

And, last year for my master’s thesis, I analyzed a TLC show called “One Big Happy Family” which profiled an African American family with obesity and their attempts at making a change. Now, not many African Americans saw the program to begin with, despite TLC’s claim that it attracts large audiences from that genre. Despite the low outreach, those who saw the program showed efficacy in wanting to change their behavior.

Like with many topics, I usually ask, what does this mean for the Caribbean. As we get more integrated economically, we should also consider the impact of such integration on public health (another post entirely). But, an organization, working regionally, who makes part of its mission to deliver credible and accurate information and data to writers, producers and others in the media and entertainment industry is sorely needed. With the growing influence of Caribbean theatre and rising movie industry in Jamaica and Trinidad, as well as local shows in many islands, it would be wise to make sure that the public gets the most exact and non-judgmental information. Whether it is on dengue fever or HIV/AIDS, child abuse or teen pregnancy, if we are to tackle any public health issue with credibility within the arts and entertainment industry across the region, we need to provide people with all that is needed. This, after all, is entertainment education.



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