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August 2, 2007

Research spotlights TV portrayal of organ donations, spurs advocates

Susan Morgan
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Purdue University research about how organ donation is portrayed on television has inspired a Hollywood advocacy group.

Susan Morgan, associate professor of health communication, has found that inaccurate storylines about organ and tissue donation stop people from registering as organ donors. As a result, Donate Life Hollywood was created to discourage the "stolen-kidney" storyline from television and film, said Tenaya Wallace, director of the national campaign.

"Professor Morgan's research has inspired us to put Hollywood on alert," Wallace said. "We have been passive about this problem, but we now have evidence that what viewers think about organ donation is directly related to what they see in television storylines. This is not just about creative license. We want Hollywood writers, producers and executives to know there is a public health impact."

The most commonly portrayed inaccuracies involve black markets for organs, doctors not saving a potential donor's life, organs being stolen from people and people with money receiving higher priority on waiting lists, Morgan said.

"During 2004 and 2005, organ donation appeared as a primary storyline on entertainment television in more than 80 episodes in medical dramas, police shows, comedy and daytime soap operas," Morgan said. "It is difficult to believe that none of these appearances presented organ donation in an accurate or positive light, but that is what we found."

Morgan's follow-up study shows that viewers, especially those who had not decided if they would register as donors, were influenced by what they saw on TV.

Donate Life Hollywood is producing DramAlerts for media and organizations about donation/transplant storylines before they air. The goal is for these alerts to inspire news stories about donation that use the storylines as a timely news peg. The campaign also will organize an effort called After the Show, in which talking points will be provided for advocacy groups and individuals who want to write letters to scriptwriters, producers and network executives about inaccuracies and offer praise for accuracy.

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

"Perpetuating myths keeps people from signing up," Wallace said. "We need to be vigilant. The real stories are so full of drama and inspiration and things writers are looking for. They are drama enough."

For more information about After the Show, contact Wallace at (213) 229-5659,

One of Morgan's studies about how organ donation storylines are perceived will appear in the journal Health Communication this summer and another was published in Clinical Transplantation in 2005. The results of her most recent media study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association as well as at the International Communication Association conference. Morgan also serves as a board member of Transplants Recipient International Organization.

The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network and the Division of Transplantation Services estimate that more than 96,000 people are waiting for transplants and many will not receive a transplant in time. Fewer than 40 percent of Americans have signed organ donor cards, and only about half of their families consent to the donation of a loved one's organs. Hearts, intestines, kidneys, livers and lungs are just some of the organs that can be transplanted.

Morgan also is leading the New Jersey Workplace Partnership for Life, which provides tailored health campaigns about organ donation in workplace settings. She is working with 45 New Jersey organizations, including Johnson & Johnson, Fuji Film, L'Oreal Paris, Ethicon, Pathmark, Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and the New Jersey Department of Labor, to encourage more people to sign up as potential organ donors. The project is supported by a $1.67 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Transplantation.

The workplace program is seeing positive results by using each company's intranet site, newspapers, newsletters and posters to feature stories from co-workers about how organ donation has touched their lives, Morgan said.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Sources: Susan Morgan, (765) 494-9108,

Tenaya Wallace: (213) 229-5659,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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