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New BGU Study Suggests Describing Organ Donation Recipients Instead of Organ Donors’ Deaths in Media Articles to Increase Willingness to Donate

May. 16, 2017

A new BGU study contends that media articles focusing on organ donation recipients, rather than articles focusing on the organ donor’s death, will increase willingness to donate among the public.  

The study was just published in the prestigious PNAS (Pro​ceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) Journal​ this month.  

There are frequently articles in the press about cases involving organ-donations. Sometimes the story is presented anonymously, without any identifying information. In many cases, the identity of the donor is given. In some cases, the identity of the recipient is known. The researchers examined how such presentations of organ donation cases may affect people's willingness to sign organ donation commitment cards, to donate the organs of a deceased relative and to support the transition to an "opt-out" policy (where anyone who has not explicitly refused is considered an organ donor after death). 

This study was part of Inbal Harel’s PhD dissertation and Meir Pinchas’s MA dissertation, under the supervision of Prof. Tehila K​ogut of the Department of Education at BGU in collaboration with Prof. Paul Slovic of the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon. 

In four studies, participants first read a scenario about a young man who was killed in a car accident. The man had signed an organ-donation card in the past, and therefore his parents decided to donate his organs. His kidney was implanted in the body of another young man who urgently required it, thus saving his life. 

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: In the identified donor condition, the name and the picture of the man who was killed and who donated the kidney were added. In the condition where the recipient was identified, the same name and picture as the ones used for the organ donor were used to control for the effect of the information itself.  In the control condition no identifying information was added. 

The researchers found that reading coverage of cases that included identifying information about the receiver (saved by organ donations) increased participants’ willingness to commit to organ donation themselves, to donate the organs of a deceased relative, or to support a transition to an “opt-out” policy. Conversely, identifying the deceased donor induced thoughts of death rather than about saving lives, resulting in fewer participants willing to donate organs or to support policies that facilitate organ donation. 

Finally, the researchers reviewed all articles on the topic in an 18-month period on four popular news sites—two of them in Israel (Ynet and Maariv) and two in the United States (USA Today and The Wall Street Journal). They found that most of the stories that appeared included an identified donor rather than an identified receiver, possibly reducing organ donations. 

“Aside from its theoretical contribution, our research suggests practical implications for efforts to promote organ donation,” says Kogut. “For example, recruiting people whose lives were saved by organ donation, identifying them by name, and telling their stories may increase media coverage about such individuals and spur members of the public to think about saving lives when reading about organ donations and to view it more favorably.”

The study was supported by US National Science Foundation Grant 1559546.