Last month, I wrote about gender representation in the scientific literature. This time, I’m taking a look at the popular press. Rather than look just at gender, I’m looking how nurses are represented (or not represented) as expert sources. I’m choosing to do this for several reasons; First, the public’s perception of nursing as a profession matters both to the future of nursing (who will pursue the profession?) and to the care we provide now (how do patients and other members of the health care team respond to us?). Second, there is an inherent gender bias in the under-representation of nurses as experts, since 90% of RNs are female1. Finally, the practice and science of nursing are distinct from other fields and are valuable to health – including cardiovascular health. (If you aren’t familiar with nursing research, there’s a list of nursing journals at the end of this post – have a look at what’s getting published). Increased public visibility is a gateway to broader funding, adoption of nursing-generated evidence, and professional respect. This isn’t just good for nurses, it’s good for the health of the population.
Nursing has matured enormously as a profession and an academic field, but the public’s perception of nursing has not kept up. A seminal 1997 report, known as the Woodhull Study of Nursing in the Media2, found that nurses were identified as sources in only 4% of health news stories in national and regional newspapers, and even fewer in industry publications. Over 20 years later, we see some increased awareness, but not enough. A team at George Washington University recently investigated the current state of women and nursing in the media. They found that many journalists don’t have a clear idea of the scope of nursing expertise, and that news organizations are infrequently reaching out to nurses. Additionally, the authors reported that journalists don’t know how to find nurses, healthcare organizations aren’t offering them as experts, and nursing professional organizations aren’t effectively engaging the media. Women remain underrepresented as expert sources in news stories at just 36%3. That’s a lot of barriers to effective representation. Yet the public trusts nurses more than any other profession, including physicians4. The valuable voices of nurses represent a huge opportunity for health and science communication, if we can learn how to effectively promote them. This will take dedicated work and attention from all sides.
Here are some ways to work on this problem:
- Women, recognize that your contributions are needed. Women will never be treated with full fairness and equality unless our voices are audible– this is as true in science and academia as it is in politics. Cultivate expertise and believe in your own status as an expert. (Fellow early career blogger Alison Webel shared some strategies to combat self-doubt.)
- Nurses, engage with the media. Write letters to the editor. Tweet. Promote your work, both clinical and research. Talk to journalists when the opportunity arises (see my tips here). Find out if your organization has a blog, and offer to write a post. Often, PR folks run these blogs and are delighted to have volunteer contributors.
- Leaders in adjacent professions, seek out and recommend nurses as experts. If you’re asked to provide a quote, or background, consider whether the best person for the job might actually be a nurse– don’t assume the interviewer will know that.
- Writers, aim for balance. Are you quoting and citing diverse sources? Think about profession, age, gender, race, rank, and nationality when you’re evaluating your sources.
Can you choose a strategy to focus on for your next project?
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing (2017). National Nursing Workforce Study. https://www.ncsbn.org/workforce.htm
- University of Rochester (1997). The Woodhull Study of Nursing in the Media. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau.
- Mason, D., Glickstein, B., Nixon, L., Westphaln, K., Han, S., & Acquaviva, K. (2018). Research Brief: The Woodhull Study Revisited: Nurses’ Representation in Health News Media. George Washington University. https://nursing.gwu.edu/woodhull-study-revisited
- Brenan, M. (2018). Nurses again outpace other professions for honesty, ethics. Gallup News. https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx?g_source=link_NEWSV9&g_medium=NEWSFEED&g_campaign=item_&g_content=Nurses%2520Again%2520Outpace%2520Other%2520Professions%2520for%2520Honesty,%2520Ethics
Resources for nursing research:
Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing: https://journals.lww.com/jcnjournal/pages/default.aspx
Nursing Research: https://journals.lww.com/nursingresearchonline/pages/currenttoc.aspx
Journal of Nursing Scholarship: https://sigmapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/15475069