Woodhull Study to reveal how often media pays attention to nurses

A 20-year-old study examining the under representation of nurses in the media is getting a second look to see if there are any new developments on the issue.

The Woodhull Study on Nurses and the Media revealed in 1997 that nurses were represented as sources in less than 4% of leading health news stories in newspapers, weeklies and healthcare trade publications, according to a briefing on the subject.

Results of a replicated study will be presented a 9 a.m. May 8 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The presentation called, “The Woodhull Study Revisited: Nurses’ Representation in Health News Media,” also will be available for streaming with unlimited viewing.

“It is odd that nursing is one of the most trusted professions yet it does not receive as much attention in the media in general,” said Maria Morales, MSN, RN, CPAN, OnCourse Learning’s executive director for healthcare programs. “Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that as visible as nurses are in the everyday care of patients and colleagues, there is so much that nurses do behind the scenes to help patients.

“When a nurse questions plans for care, spends time researching a way to connect a person to resources, or spends the extra time listening and conversing with patients to help improve a healthcare situation, much of this is done behind closed doors in private,” Morales continued. “Maybe this contributes to less awareness of the significant thumbprint nurses have on healthcare in general.”

The original study was replicated by the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University School of Nursing to gauge progress over the years. Also, journalists were interviewed about using nurses as sources.

The recent study also included an analysis of the use of Twitter by the top 50 schools of nursing in the country, Diana J. Mason, PhD, RN, FAAN, senior policy service professor for George Washington University School of Nursing, wrote in the briefing.

OnCourse Learning was one of several organizations that contributed to funding the research.

Startling statistics revealed in 1997

Back in 1997, various media outlets highlighted the study and its results. An editorial by Judy Mann, titled, “A lot of care but little credit,” published in the Washington Post on Dec. 5, 1997, pointed out at the time there were 2.5 million RNs in the U.S., yet they were not receiving proper recognition in the media. Mann wrote nurses play roles as patient advocates, teachers of good health practices and as diagnosticians and researchers.

“Although a patient quickly realizes how important nurses are, the media continue to ignore their role,” Mann wrote in the editorial.

Mann explained how the study was a project by the late Nancy Woodhull, a founding editor of USA Today and modeled after several other media studies Woodhull conducted with students at the University of Rochester. The study involved looking at the content of healthcare and nursing coverage in seven newspapers, four general interest magazines, one business magazine and five health industry publications.

“They found that nurses were all but invisible,” Mann wrote. “Healthcare coverage made up 10% of all articles in the newspapers surveyed, but nurses were referred to or quoted only 4% of the time. In 142 healthcare articles published by the news magazines surveyed, nurses were mentioned only three times. Healthcare industry publications used nurses as references only 1% of the time.”

Of particular concern to Mann and study authors was a story published in Newsweek about a nurse dubbed “heroine No. 1” for uncovering an E. coli outbreak.

“But after that initial mention, Sandra Gallegos, a nurse who tracks communicable diseases, disappeared from the story,” Mann wrote.

Bringing attention to nurses’ important role

According to the website truthaboutnursing.org, the Woodhull Study offers insight into the way healthcare professionals should be referenced so nurses are not left out. The website recommends using phrases such as “consult your primary healthcare provider” as opposed to “your doctor” to ensure contributions of nurse practitioners are not ignored and to seek out nurses for healthcare-related stories. The website also emphasizes using nurse credentials — a regular editorial practice at Nurse.com — in order to reference nurses correctly in stories.

“It is sad that the media often portrays nurses as physician helpers, rather than highly skilled professionals, but I do think we are making progress in this arena,” said Nadine Salmon, MSN, RN-BC, IBCLC, clinical director for CE programs, healthcare, for OnCourse Learning.

“I have noticed lately there has been some more positive media attention focused on nursing,” Salmon continued. “The Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing’s Future highlights various nursing specialties and runs TV commercials portraying nurses in a positive light. This helps balance some of the negativity surrounding the portrayal of nurses in many TV shows, such as Nurse Jackie (a recovering addict) and Mercy (featuring Sonia, a jaded veteran).”

“Although we still need to share a more positive image of nursing, I think the day will come when the media will depict nurses in a more positive and compassionate light, and this will hopefully encourage students to enter the profession of nursing.

Today, nurses constitute up to 80% of the healthcare workforce, with 3.6 million working in the U.S., according to the Center for Healthcare Policy and Media Engagement. The organization cites recent Gallup Poll results — one of several in recent years — showing nurses are the most trusted profession.

“That gives nurses clout as advocates, and it makes the time ripe for nurses to move beyond the bedside to make and shape the future of health policy,” the website states. “Through the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement, a pillar of the school’s mission, GW Nursing is emphasizing the importance of nursing’s voice in health debates, while weaving policy into curricula and advocating for patients at every level.”

Find out how to register for online attendance at the May 8 presentation.

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