Why Are Nurses Missing from Mainstream Media?

Deborah Chiaravalloti - 03/22/19

Of all the medical shows on television; Grey’s Anatomy, The Resident, Scrubs, House, can you identify the nurses in lead roles? Certainly, Nurse Jackie put a nurse front and center, and Chicago Med shows its fair share, but that’s not to say that either of those shows are wholly realistic. What is happening and why are nurses missing from mainstream media?

The Woodhull Study Revisited found that nothing much has changed in 20 years. Two decades ago the original Woodhull study found that four percent of quotes in newspapers stories and a paltry one percent in weeklies and trade publications were attributed to nurses. The most recent Woodhall study found:

  • Nurses were identified as sources in only 2 percent of quotations or other sourcing in health-related articles in September 2017
  • Nurses and the nursing profession were only mentioned in 13 percent of articles

The study concluded: “Nurses remain largely invisible in health news stories, despite their relevance to almost any health issue. Although the profession has an increasing number of nurses with doctoral degrees who are clinicians or researchers with deep clinical and policy expertise, nurses are seldom included as sources in stories on topics related to health policy, the business of health care and research.”

The problem is that journalists may not understand current day nursing, and the many different roles and levels of education that it can involve. For example, journalists may be unaware of the graduate level expertise of nurses or specialties like anesthesia nurses. When a healthcare source is needed, doctors trump nurses nearly every time and they are the ones sought for interviews. On top of that, when contacted for experts, hospitals and other healthcare organizations may not offer nurses as sources and may default to offering doctors.

The result is that nurses remain invisible. As reported by, Diana J. Mason, PhD, RN, FAAN, principal investigator of the Woodhull Study Revisited and senior policy service professor, George Washington University School of Nursing said the report, “…underscores the importance of nurses’ voices being at all decision-making tables related to health and healthcare, but that aim is undermined if we are not visible as experts in the media. Nurses have important perspectives on health and healthcare that are often unique, so journalists may be missing the best part of a story if they don’t talk with nurses.”

When nurses are portrayed in the media, it is often in a less than flattering light. It’s not that nurses want to be seen through rose colored glasses, but some reality would be nice. Take Nurse Jackie for instance; she is described by Netflix as a “flawed but dedicated ER nurse who relies on pain meds to get through exhausting days in a New York City Hospital”. Others would be less generous, describing her as a drug addicted, adulterous nurse barely hanging on to reality and custody of her children. As in any television portrayal of any profession, the reality usually lies somewhere in the middle.

Nurses aren’t happy with television’s portrayal of nurses and published some of their sentiments. Included in “14 things nurses wish the mainstream media knew” are:

  • We are not “sexy nurses”. We are not there to fluff your pillows and we are not your personal maid.
  • Men like me are RNs and people need to stop stereotyping male nurses.
  • It’s not a job where you sit and drink tea ALL DAY, which many seem to believe. A glass of water in a shift would be a godsend.
  • Doctors manage your disease; we manage your response to the disease.
  • I would like people to understand that a nurse doesn’t become a nurse to become a physician. We become nurses to be nurses.
  • I want the mainstream media to know that we are our own profession, not watered-down doctors or medical maids. We have had a lot of both negative and positive publicity lately, and above all I would love for mainstream media simply to recognize that we work hard and love our work even more.

What is to be done? It will be a long, slow climb to fix an issue as entrenched as this one, but each individual nurse can take it upon him or herself to be part of the solution.

  1. Meet with your organization’s public relations/marketing department. Make them aware that nurses are available as sources of information.
  2. Use your social media accounts to talk about nurses as experts. Make sure your hashtags will attract those outside of nursing, rather than inside nursing. For example, #lovenursing will attract only nurses, whereas #criticalhospitalcare will attract those outside the profession.
  3. Prompt your professional association and/or union to promote itself to journalists as an expert resource.
  4. As an alumnus, write to your nursing school’s communications office and urge them to join the fight, and promote themselves as an expert resource.

Each one of these may seem like a drop in the bucket, but a journey begins with a single step. If nurses begin to adopt these strategies then eventually the tide may turn and we may see a balanced portrayal of nursing in mainstream media, and inclusion in stories that need a nurse’s perspective.