Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Media Portrayal of Nursing: Ready for a Close-Up

Nurses are saints. No, they’re angels. Clearly, they’re hand-maidens for doctors. Wait, all the really good nurses plan to go to medical school some day. At least that’s what we see on television and in the movies.

The truth is that TV shows or movies do not accurately portray what nurses do and the value their caring and scientific knowledge bring to healthcare environments. What we see most often in entertainment media are doctors who perform the real-life work that nurses do. This misrepresentation creates the appearance that nurses are secondary, non-essential players in healthcare settings, assigned to changing bed linens and taking temperatures. And, unfortunately, television and film is where most people form their perceptions and attitudes about the nursing profession.

The conversation about on-screen nursing characters has been around for years, but the recent launch of three new shows that have a nurse as the main character – Nurse Jackie, HawthoRNe and Mercy – has opinions flying once again.

“Whether it’s TV, films, billboards, magazines or music, the media historically depicts nurses incorrectly – they just don’t know who nurses are,” said Sandy Summers, executive director of Truth About Nursing, a media advocacy organization striving to improve the public’s understanding of nurses’ role in healthcare. “These portrayals leave people with the impression that nurses don’t do anything interesting or important.”

What nurses really do each day is clearly dramatic enough for television, said Summers, who is a Nurse Jackie supporter, otherwise directors and writers wouldn’t have doctors perform those tasks on camera.

For decades, the inaccuracy has incited national nursing organizations and nursing advocates to protest the way the entertainment industry depicts nurses. They have repeatedly petitioned these organizations to make changes. Their most ardent request is that writers produce scripts with nursing characters who reflect the high level of competency necessary to maneuver in a complex healthcare environment, without assigning the negative traits.

But many advocacy groups spend so much time rejecting nursing characters

Diana Mason, editor-in-chief emerita of the American Journal of Nursing

that aren’t perfect that they miss the ones that present some of the best qualities nurses can have, said Diana Mason, editor-in-chief emeritus of the American Journal of Nursing and endowed chair at the Hunter–Bellevue School of Nursing at the City University of New York. A nurse character doesn’t have to be a faultless person to exhibit both a fierce devotion to protecting patients and a high level of knowledge.

“Often, these organizations aren’t media savvy, and they are unable to separate out the nursing image that is often needed to make entertainment intriguing,” Mason said. “They are right to boycott some shows that have a solo nurse character who decides to go to medical school, but we shouldn’t demonize the nursing characters that care deeply for their patients or shows that tackle the real issues that nurses face.”

And the nurses who have appeared on screen have, indeed, changed over the years. When nurses first graced film and television, they were either self-sacrificial heroines or love interests. Today, in comedies and dramas, they wear scrubs and have strong personalities. There is even a new trend to create “dark nurse” characters – those that are violent, possessed and tormented. But, with few exceptions, they still play peripheral roles, said David Stanley, senior lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. Stanley analyzed 280 movies produced worldwide between 1900 and 2007, observing stereotypes and unflattering portrayals. He published his results in the United Kingdom-based Journal of Advanced Nursing.

David Stanley, senior lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia

Misrepresentations on television are likely to have a more profound effect on the public’s perception about nursing than movies, Stanley said.

“Television brings characters into the living room,” he said. “The viewer is more likely to associate it with reality than what they see in a movie. They tend to recognize movies more as entertainment.”

But the character’s strength or commitment to patient safety alone doesn’t make them palatable to practicing nurses, and the effect on the public can be negative, said Courtney Rawls, a practicing nurse in Washington, D.C. Rawls has spent many hours talking with students about how the entertainment industry portrays nurses.

“Television shows and movies feel like they have to put drama into what we do, so they never accurately portray our work,” she said. “What we do is valuable, but it’s not glamorous, and adding all the drama makes the public more confused. These misrepresentations even make it hard for me to explain my job to my own mother.”

Nurses can’t depend on the entertainment industry to get it right on its own, though, said Cindy Saver, president of CLS Development Inc., a company that provides knowledge-based services for nurses. Saver is a registered nurse who has published many articles on nursing topics in various nursing publications, including Nursing Spectrum and Nurse Week. Practicing nurses must be proactive and voice their opinions and desires, she said, recommending that nurses flood producers with e-mails and letters, contact companies that advertise during certain shows and express displeasure and pen opinion-editorial pieces that can appear in newspapers.

“Most importantly, nurses have to go to the media with suggestions for improvements and be willing to acknowledge positive things in shows and movies,” Saver said. “And, when asked for our input and feedback, we have to be willing to provide it.”

Clearly, opinions about the entertainment media’s portrayal of nursing are still brewing hotly. Any one character is unlikely to satisfy everyone in the profession, at least one thing is true: scriptwriters are now beginning to see merit in including a nurse in any show about healthcare.


March 23, 2010 - Posted by | Healthcare | , , , ,

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