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‘No progress’ in media representation of nurses over last 20 years

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The nursing profession continues to be underrepresented in the media, with little change over the past two decades, according to researchers in the US.

They concluded that nurses continued to be underrepresented as sources in heath news stories, despite their increasing levels of education and expertise.

“The lack of progress in nurses’ representation in health news stories over the past 20 years was stunning”

Diana Mason

The George Washington University researchers repeated a major piece of US research from the 1990s, called the Woodhull Study on Nursing and the Media.

To do so, they examined a random sample of 537 US health news stories to determine how often nurses were quoted, mentioned, or identified in pictures in popular magazines and newspapers.

The Woodhull Study Revisited work is being conducted in three parts, with the first two published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship and the American Journal of Nursing, respectively, over the last two months.

Phase one studied how nurses were represented as sources in the media and phase two examined what health journalists viewed as barriers and facilitators to contacting nurses as sources.

The third phase three, which is yet to be published, asked how schools of nursing were using social media as a way of attracting journalists.

The original study was conducted in the mid-1990s when Nancy Woodhull, a founding editor of USA Today, was concerned over a lack of female representation in the media in general.

“If journalists aren’t interviewing nurses, they may be missing the best part of the story”

Jean Johnson

In addition, her interactions with a nurse who was involved in treating Ms Woodhull for cancer led her to push for a study on how much representation nurses receive US media. She felt the nurse in question had been instrumental in her being correctly diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996.

The resulting research looked at 20,000 health news articles published during September 1997 in seven newspapers, four newsweeklies, and five healthcare industry publications.

It found nurses were referenced in 4% of newspaper quotes and 1% of magazine quotes, photos in the stories rarely identified the nurses, and nurses or nursing was referenced in only 10% of articles.

The study, carried out by the University of Rochester School of Nursing, was published in late 1997, mere months after Ms Woodhull died from her cancer.

According to the researchers of the new study, the number of nurses quoted as credible sources in the media has not changed in a statistically significant way in 20 years, despite the call to do so in the late 1990s.

The George Washington study found that nurses were identified as the source of only 2% of quotes in the articles and were never sourced in stories on health policy.

When quoted, nurses mainly commented on the profession itself. Nurses or the nursing profession were mentioned in 13% of the articles. Meanwhile, nurses were identified in 4% of photographs or other images that accompanied the articles.

“Nurses remain invisible in health news media, despite their increasing levels of education, unique roles, and expertise,” stated the study authors. 

The new study was led by Diana Mason, a registered nurse and senior policy service professor for George Washington’s Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement.

“The lack of progress in nurses’ representation in health news stories over the past 20 years was stunning,” she said. “We can’t transform health care and promote the health of the public without recognising and tapping into the special expertise of nurse.”

George Washington University School of Nursing

Jean Johnson

Jean Johnson

Jean Johnson, executive director of the centre, added: “Journalists and the media play an important role in educating the public about issues affecting health and health care, but their biases about who are credible experts is limiting the richness of their reporting.”

“If journalists aren’t interviewing nurses, they may be missing the best part of the story,” she warned.

The continued underrepresentation of nurses in the media also exists in the UK, according to Ellen Nicholson, a committee member of the Royal College of Nursing’s General Practice Nursing Forum.

UK nurses do not receive the level of authority that they deserve, as qualified nurses are often missing from the media, she said in a recent blog on the issue.

When the preliminary findings from the new study were released earlier this year, Ms Nicholson called on nurses to “actively” reaching out to the media to influence and broaden public debates.

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