Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fiction or...?

As I'm sure most of the regular blog readers have realized, I'm a fan of pop culture. I'm endlessly fascinated with the media and how it spreads knowledge - or misinformation.

The new ABC show Eli Stone, which I have quite been looking forward to - the premiere has George Michael as prophet singing Faith - is by the same producer who's given us Brothers & Sisters and Dirty Sexy Money. So I was thinking "how in the world could this go wrong, it'll be fabulous!"

Well, apparently the world likes to make a point sometimes. The American Academy of Pediatrics wants the first show either pulled or substantially re-edited, because the opening scene involves a woman suing a pharmaceutical company over the supposed autism/vaccine link, saying that it's the reason her child is autistic. The link we know doesn't exist. Where the lead researcher involved was charged with misconduct in an effort to put the link/controversy to rest. The lawyers settle, after the woman makes your typical heartwarming by a wronged mother speech.

Given the description, you would think that the pharma companies would be going after ABC, but instead it's the pediatricians. They're worried that the heavy promotion ABC has been giving Eli Stone (a new show in a sea of repeats due to the writer's strike), and the likelihood of high viewership, will result in frightening more parents away from vaccinating.

The sad thing is, it's clear from the entire set-up that the scenario is supposed to make us dislike Eli, the main character, so that at his redemption we feel something for him. But it would have been completely possible to make him an utter bastard of a lawyer - and not propagate medical misinformation in the process.

ABC's response, to run a website for the CDC at the end of the show, isn't going to alleviate fears - it's not even going to address them. It's the difference between using scare tactics to get a message across versus a mass mailed flyer. And ultimately, they're counting on popular misconception and fear to tell their story for them, which is plain lazy writing.

But don't take my word for it, make your own decision. You can see for yourself. The first seven minutes of the show are available at ABC. Just select Eli Stone from the left side menu, and then select the sneak peak episode.


SabrinaW said...

(reposting as a comment to stir up questions)

Is this a case of irresponsibly misleading media, or fictious media that provides valid entertainment? Should information considered misleading by prominent professionals be censored in the name of public health? (there have been recent studies suggesting that repeatedly hearing wrong information, even when labeled as "wrong", would still be more likely to be accepted as correct) Should the producers of such a show be blamed for an increase in parents not vaccinating their children (and a likely increase in infectious childhood diseases)?

The answers to these questions will lie in which conceit of media outweighs: media as reflection of society, or media as shaper of society. If you subscribe to the former, then everything is fair game because it is merely a representation of ideas that already exist in society, and if you subscribe to the latter, then the creators of media, including fiction, ought to be held accountable for the harms that result from their work. This can tie in to other conflicts involving media, such as the connection between violent movies and video games and violence in society.

(speaking of irresponsible media, am I allowed to claim sleep-dep as my excuse for not catching this before I blogged it? :) )

Kelly Hills said...

We have documented evidence of the CSI effect, the Law & Order effect, and a very bare minimum indication that there is also what should probably be called an ER effect - that people believe what they see on medical shows to be a relatively accurate portrayal of medicine.

I know I cite the study frequently, but it's because this is basically the only study of it - people who watch TV medical dramas believe that CPR is something like 70% effective, that there is no harm in performing it, and that the person who received it will be ready to leave shortly.

Reality is much more grim, with most hospital-performed CPR having a 24 hour survival rate in the mid-20s, and a week survival rate in the low teens. Not to mention bruises, broken ribs, and other trauma.

So people hear that their loved one needed CPR, they don't think they're going to walk into a room with a weak loved one with broken ribs, potentially on some sort of assisted breathing device, looking like they were beaten with a bat. They expect someone sitting up in bed, ready to go home soon, bright eyed and bushy tailed.

Now - should people have better critical thinking abilities? Should people take the time to learn this sort of thing? I certainly think so... but I also think that from a sheer practical standpoint, two major things get in the way of that.

One - that not everyone is as interested in critical thinking, or is willing to simply trust what they see.

Two - that sometimes you're so focused on basic survival and making ends meet, no matter how much you might like to educate yourself, there just isn't the time or energy.

I suppose we could also toss in a three here, that is related to the first two: Americans have a dismal knowledge of basic science and technology.

Interestingly, the American public used to demand that their medical TV shows be endorsed by the American Medical Association, and Hollywood wouldn't even consider airing a medical show if they couldn't get that seal of approval.