Expert hopes TV will fight gun-violence epidemic His effort aided war on drunken driving

October 14, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BOSTON -- Dozens of videotapes of television shows crowd the shelves of Jay Winsten's office at Harvard's School of Public Health.

There's the episode of "Dallas" when April Stevens knocks back a drink with her sister and says, "I don't think we should drive. I'll call a cab."

Ten years ago, the phrase "designated driver" would have drawn blank stares. Making the concept a household word was no accident, but the result of hundreds of references to the dangers of drunken driving deliberately planted in "Roseanne," "Cheers" and other top shows through a unique collaboration between Hollywood and Harvard.

Paul Junger Witt, one of Hollywood's most successful producers, says Dr. Winsten "awoke us all to the fact that we were capable of making an enormous difference with such issues as drinking and driving without necessarily altering the basic substance of our shows."

Now Dr. Winsten, who created the nationwide media campaign, is trying to repeat its success with another major health hazard: the epidemic of gun violence that is a leading killer of young people today.

"What are we going to do to keep guns out of the hands of children?" asks Dr. Winsten, a former molecular biologist who directs the Center for Health Communication at Harvard.

Gun violence, unlike drunken driving, does not lend itself to catchy messages that can be easily inserted into episodes of prime-time television.

"No one ever set out to cause a drunk driving crash," says Dr. Winsten, giving the first detailed look at the new project.

"With gun-related violence, we're dealing with the extremely powerful emotions involved in a conscious, intentional desire to do severe bodily harm to another human being. How to intervene in that process is many times harder than dealing with drunk driving prevention."

In Hollywood, Dr. Winsten acts as a prod and unofficial consultant, providing background material, advice and inspiration, say producers who have worked with him. Says Don Reo, creator of the hit series "Blossom," "He's the voice that comes around every once in a while and acts as your conscience."

In recent weeks, Dr. Winsten has begun shuttling regularly between his office here and the palm-lined streets of Hollywood, meeting with executives, producers and writers whose shows can mold public opinion and, social scientists believe, change behavior.

The television industry, under fire in Congress for glorifying violence, seems willing to listen.

"We may in some small part be one of the contributing factors," says Mr. Witt, part of the Emmy-award winning team behind such hits as "The Golden Girls," "Soap" and the film "Dead Poet's Society." "Nothing has been proven, but we have to do everything we can to reach the public in trying to eliminate violence from the core and fabric of American society."

Important first steps, says Dr. Winsten, are messages that make people more aware of the risks posed by guns.

If Dr. Winsten's new campaign is successful, viewers tuning into their favorite series might see a plot line that seems as familiar -- and potentially tragic -- as a story on the nightly news: two children are playing in a home where the parents keep a loaded, unlocked handgun.

Dr. Winsten thinks television can help reduce deaths and injuries by reaching the medium's most avid watchers, America's young people, with the message that there are other ways besides guns to resolve conflict.

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