About 18 people die every day waiting for organ donations. There are a lot of potential ways to reduce the shortage of organs, but under current law the easiest is probably persuading people to register as donors in case of death. And TV doesn't appear to be helping that cause.
There's some evidence, much of it from Purdue University's Susan Morgan and the University of Illinois' Brian Quick, that portrayals of organ donation on TV are generally negative, or, at least, that negative portrayals may get a wider distribution. In one study, Morgan and coauthors reviewed network TV shows from 2004-05 for organ donation related content, and concluded, "the framing of organ donation is primarily negative and highlights moral and material corruption in the medical and organ allocation systems."
It's extremely difficult to test the effects of that messaging on donation rates directly. What's easier to testing the effect on overall attitudes toward donation. Morgan and her coauthors' research suggests that people who've seen negative TV portrayals of donation have more negative views about it in turn. For example, an experiment wherein 580 participants were either shown a TV episode with a negative attitude toward organ donation or an episode with no relation to the topic found that those shown the episode related to organ donation had less accurate knowledge and more negative views on the topic.
The effect of Grey's Anatomy
Now, Quick, Morgan, the University of Illinois' Nicole LaVoie, and the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network's Dave Bosch have a paper in the July issue of Communication Research analyzing the effect on donation attitudes of one specific program: Grey's Anatomy. The show, they argue, has an overwhelmingly negative and cynical view of organ donation. "The majority of organ donation coverage on this program depicts doctors as vultures, eager to transplant organs from their patients," they write. "In addition, plots often highlight doctors crossing ethical lines by privileging patients that are their friends as well as affluent patients with organ transplantation over less familiar and affluent individuals."
With that context in mind, the authors surveyed 600 Illinois residents — 200 Caucasians, 200 African-Americans, and 200 Latinos/Latinas — most of whom were female and 18-24, and saw how their attitudes about organ donation interacted with their Grey's Anatomy viewing patterns.
They found that increased viewing of Grey's Anatomy lead to an increased belief that its portrayal of medicine is generally realistic, which in turn reduced knowledge levels about donation and increased attitudinal barriers. Interestingly, decreased knowledge about donation didn't appear to affect respondents' ultimate attitude toward joining the donors' registry, but barriers like distrust in medical institutions had a real influence.
But there's an important caveat. While overall there was a significant relationship between belief in the show's realism and barriers to donation, that relationship isn't statistically significant for African-American and Latino/Latina viewers. "Our findings imply that Grey’s Anatomy programming appears to penetrate the belief systems of Caucasians more deeply than African Americans," the authors conclude.
This is just one study, of course, and it's important to keep in mind that it's ultimately evaluating the show's relationship to attitudes about donation rather than donation itself. We have nowhere near a strong enough evidence base to conclude that actual donor rates are falling because of the show. But if nothing else, it's a good reminder that the messages TV imparts, especially on topics where the public's pre-existing knowledge level is low, have some measure of influence (recent research tying 16 and Pregnant to declines in teen pregnancy also showed the possible power of television here).
And there's a more basic point: it certainly wouldn't hurt for shows to stop portraying doctors performing transplants as vultures, or the system as a whole as corrupt, and instead focus on the massive potential for saving lives that organ donor registration offers.