Portrayal of Brain Death in Film and Television

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Abstract

We sought to evaluate whether television and cinematic coverage of brain death is educational or misleading. We identified 24 accessible productions that addressed brain death using the archives of the Paley Center for Media (160 000 titles) and the Internet Movie Database (3.7 million titles). Productions were reviewed by two board-certified neurologists. Although 19 characters were pronounced brain dead, no productions demonstrated a complete examination to assess for brain death (6 included an assessment for coma, 9 included an evaluation of at least 1 brainstem reflex, but none included an assessment of every brainstem reflex, and 2 included an apnea test). Subjectively, both authors believed only a small fraction of productions (13% A.L., 13% J.W.) provided the public a complete and accurate understanding of brain death. Organ donation was addressed in 17 productions (71%), but both reviewers felt that the discussions about organ donation were professional in a paucity of productions (9% for A.L., 27% for J.W.). Because television and movies serve as a key source for public education, the quality of productions that feature brain death must be improved.

Brain death portrayals in film and television are often incomplete, misleading, or grossly inaccurate, leading the public to misunderstand the process and implications of brain death determination.

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