Yesterday, The Harvard Crimson posted a fascinating article about the power of storytelling. Neal Baer, executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, spoke at a Radcliffe event titled “Telling Tales: How Stories Can Make a Difference.” The Crimson quotes Baer as saying that when the medical television show ER did a storyline on human papillomavirus (HPV), the number of viewers able to correctly define the disease jumped from 9 percent before the show to 28 percent a week after it aired.

I found a summary of the Kaiser Family Foundation study that Baer referred to, and it also showed that awareness of the link between HPV and cervical cancer tripled in the week after the show ran. What’s more, 1 in 7 viewers actually consulted a doctor about something they had seen on ER.

er-2Given that ER highlighted HPV for less than one minute, the study is a testament to the ability of story to make a real difference in people’s lives. Interestingly, the report notes that viewers indicated the greatest interest in health-related storylines on ER when they “centered on a personal drama involving one of the main characters of the show. However, the more abstract policy-oriented health story lines… were of less interest to viewers.”

Here at Nieman Storyboard, we’ll be focusing on medical narrative for the rest of the week. In light of the Kaiser study, I’m wondering if reported nonfiction narratives have the same kind of public health impact that fictional television narratives do. While it seems logical that true stories might be even more likely to move people, does the freedom afforded to fiction make it easier for screenwriters to get viewers to identify with characters?

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