Media portrayals of nursing versus the actual work of nurses

Patricia Anne Ashton Duncan, Syracuse University


Media portrayals of the nursing profession have been studied extensively, and found to be consistently inaccurate and unfavorable. While communications researchers disagree about the effects of the media portrayals on attitudes and behaviors, there are indications there are influences and they may be substantial. Given the current nursing shortage in this country, if such inaccuracies exist, and if the portrayals influence career selection, career continuation, and public opinion it is critical to intervene to change the situation. The purpose of this study is to (a) describe the nursing shortage by selective literature review, (b) to describe the image of nursing portrayed by mass communications by literature review, (c) to examine by literature review selected communication theories that provide a theoretical base for possible media effects, (d) to describe the actual work of nursing by interview of nurses, (e) to determine the commonalities and differences between the media portrayal of nursing and the actual work of nurses, and (f) to formulate recommendations for correction of the media image by the nursing profession and the media for recruitment and retention of nurses, and for improvement of public understanding.

For this qualitative study 34 registered nurses in practice were interviewed. The interviews were semistructured and open ended, with the goal to elicit the nurses' perceptions about their experience of the work world. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed, and the data were analyzed for categories, themes, and patterns. The categories that emerged from the data include the nature of the work, nurse-nurse relationships, nurse-physician relationships, educational pursuits, scholarship, and patterns of media exposure and response. The comparison of media portrayals to the actual work found inaccuracies between the two, mostly in terms of omission of much of the work of nursing from media portrayals. For most categories, the media depictions were superficial by comparison. The results could be interpreted as supportive, partially supportive, or not supportive of specific communication theories addressed.