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How "Grey's Anatomy" raised awareness for sex assault resources

Reproduced from Torgerson, et. al, 2019; Chart: Axios Visuals

An episode of "Grey's Anatomy" that focused attention on sexual assault and how to seek help is linked to a large jump in internet and Twitter searches on the topic and — even more importantly — greater call volume to a help hotline, per a study out Monday.

Why it matters: In America, roughly 18% of women and 1% of men experience rape, leading to long-term and sometimes severe health consequences. Only 23% of sexual assault crimes are reported. But media could — and some say should — focus more attention on available resources to encourage viewers to get the help they need, the researchers say.

"Media outlets need to be acutely aware of the level of reach and effect they potentially have."
— Trevor Torgerson, study co-author, to Axios

Background: The episode, called "Silent All These Years," first aired on March 28. It showcases a female trauma patient whom a doctor suspects had been sexually assaulted, reviving the doctor's own personal experiences with domestic abuse.

  • The show focuses on how an ideal medical setting would treat such a patient. It includes a talk between a male doctor and his stepson on consent, and ends with a focus on how to reach out to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN.
  • As the show reminds viewers, "You don't have to go through this alone." RAINN provides 24/7 confidential help on their hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or via their live chat.

What they did: In the study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the researchers tracked social media and phone calls two weeks before and one week after the show first aired. The team...

  • Used Google Trends to evaluate the number of internet searches for the terms "Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network," "sexual assault," and "rape" between March 14 and April 4.
  • Searched Twitter with Social Sprout for the terms "sexual assault hotline" and "RAINN (excluding Wilson)" so it wouldn't include actor Rainn Wilson. Plus, looked at tweets referencing @RAINN.
  • Contacted RAINN to determine call volume the 48 hours after the airing.
  • Developed an algorithm to forecast expected search and tweet volumes for the same period if the episode hadn't aired.

What they found: Engagements with the @RAINN Twitter account and tweets mentioning “Sexual Assault Hotline” increased by over 1000% the day after the episode was released, per Torgerson.

  • "More importantly, the RAINN hotline saw their call volume increase by 43% in the 48 hours after the episode," says Torgerson, who's a medical student at Oklahoma State University.
  • "These findings are important as it displays another way for the media and involved parties to reach survivors of sexual violence who may not be aware of the resources otherwise," he adds.

What they're saying: John Ayers, a computational epidemiologist at UC San Diego who was not part of the study, tells Axios this is an important study because it "is getting public health leaders more connected to main street."

"Public health has become a top down elite driven system where leaders assume they already know what the health needs and priorities are for the public. This study identifies what the public is organically engaging with and as a result identifies a pathway for intervention that is responsive to how the public is already engaging." 
— John Ayers

What's next: Both Torgerson and Ayers support the development of media guidelines to explain how to accurately portray topics like sexual assault and further publicize crisis hotline numbers.

  • "Correct portrayal is important for destigmatizing sexual violence in general, especially the aspects of getting help. ... The more exposure the public can get to using a crisis hotline, the process once they call, and what the recovery process might look like after the call, the greater influence the hotline may have," Torgerson explains.
  • Ayers says the World Health Organization's media resource guide on preventing suicide is an example of what can be done. Ayers published recent research on the role journalists can play to help people with substance abuse receive the help they need. One way? Publish crisis hotline 1-800-662-4357.

Go deeper: Everyone should watch Grey’s Anatomy’s powerful message about consent (Glamour)