America faces many challenges today: terrorism; AIDS, stem cell research; cloning; and the economic challenges of globalization. What makes these issues even more difficult is how to address them in a growing climate of fear and close-mindedness. I believe telling stories for social change is one way each of us can make a difference.
As a physician and a television writer I’ve been fortunate to tell stories on a variety of thorny topics. Should juveniles be tried as adults? Should a woman who is pregnant be forced to stop drinking alcohol if she intends to keep the pregnancy? Do her reproductive rights trump a fetus’s rights? Should we allow people to sell their kidneys? Do violent video games encourage violent behavior?
Many of the stories I told on ER and continue to present on SVU are based on my personal experience as a physician. I call the stories of my doctoring “private stories.” These are the cases I’ve seen as a physician that have made an impact. For example, as a pediatrician I’ve treated adolescents for alcohol poisoning. And alcohol abuse by teens is a major public health crisis with one out of three seniors in high school regularly binge drinking. I took that “private story” about a young man I treated and wrote two episodes of ER, illustrating the problems of alcohol abuse in adolescents and how we can try to treat it. I call these television stories “public stories,” because they are inspired by real cases (my “private stories”) and made public (on a television drama) to illustrate important social problems.
These stories have a measurable impact. Instinctively, we know that we get information from television – and not just news. Dramatic shows like ER and SVU educate viewers. Studies I’ve done with the Kaiser Family Foundation and published in the journal “Health Affairs” have demonstrated a profound increase in the public’s knowledge about a variety of health issues – after they have watched an episode of ER. The study proved that viewers retained this health information when retested six moths later. Stories can make us laugh, make us cry, and make us smarter. Our stories are our power.
And you don’t have to be a television writer to have an impact. You can write op-ed pieces; work in grassroots organizations; testify before the legislature; run for the Senate; debate your enemies; march for justice; stand for truth; teach. The point is to tell your stories publicly. To speak out. To take your stories and your passions and turn them into potent barbs to fight dogmatism and bigotry.
Tell us your stories.