Changing how the world thinks about nursing

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Q: You're always asking the media to change what it's doing, or even to withdraw a media product completely. Don't you think people have a right to say whatever they want? You act like the speech police!

A: The media has a right to say whatever it wants within the bounds of the law, and grassroots non-profit organizations have the same right to urge the media to change its speech. The idea that The Truth About Nursing is somehow interfering with free speech seems to be based on several misconceptions about our work and the nature of speech in a modern liberal democracy.

The Truth About Nursing is not the Government. Thus, the Truth has no legal power to change what anyone says. In the United States, the right to free speech is generally seen to be based on the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, the First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, is a limit on government power, not a guarantee that there will be no fallout whatsoever for speech. The Truth cannot and does not seek to interfere with anyone's legal right to free speech. We cannot put anyone in jail, we cannot fine anyone, and we have no power to control the speech of others.

Nor is the Truth a powerful economic or political actor, like a major corporation, a wealthy political committee, or a large university, that might be able to intimidate those subject to its influence into conforming to its notions of good speech. The Truth is a small, grassroots 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose campaigns are driven by how many supporters it can motivate to take part. If a Truth campaign generates 1,000 letters, it means that 1,000 people agree that a given product is hurting nursing and public health, not that a few executives have decided to use millions of dollars from a corporate treasury to broadcast messages that reflect their views. On the contrary, it is the subjects of Truth campaigns who are often huge corporations, with revenues that may reach into the billions. Nor can the Truth bring private tort lawsuits, such as defamation actions, on the grounds that some company is failing to tell the truth about nursing generally. Of course, just as anyone may urge others to refrain from giving economic support to the Truth, nothing prevents us from asking others to refrain from supporting those whose products harm nursing.

The Truth's experience suggests that some of the "free speech" argument we hear may reflect a failure to take the concerns of nurses seriously, despite the central role nurses play in the future of global health. It's true that other advocacy groups, such as those that represent the interests of women, may hear that their concerns about media products reflect an intolerance for honest speech, that they want all speech to conform to a rigidly positive and unrealistic vision of those whose interests they pursue. But we doubt that criticism of a media product suggesting that female physicians existed to serve male physicians would be met with the same reaction the Truth hears when it criticizes products suggesting that nurses exist to serve physicians.

Moreover, the Truth's goal is to improve the accuracy of what the public is told. It's true that Truth campaigns asking that a damaging ad be withdrawn may result in less of that specific example of commercial speech. But unlike some advocates, we are not asking that the media distort reality, perhaps by telling only one side of a news story, or by sugarcoating the way people really work, live or talk. Instead, we urge the media to tell the public more about what's really going on, good and bad. We don't want the media to stop covering nursing's problems, like the many worrying aspects of the shortage. Nor do we mind a negative portrayal of a nurse--even a story about an apparent serial killer like Charles Cullen--if it is accurate and shows some perspective. But we do want the media to stop ignoring nursing achievements, to stop giving others credit for nurses' work, and to stop presenting nurses in ways that are plainly inaccurate and degrading. In short, we simply want the media to start telling more of the truth.

The "free speech" arguments we hear often seem to amount to pleas for impunity for speech the arguers like, and of course, intolerance for our speech. But it's rare that anyone can point to an inaccuracy in our work or even begin to rebut our analysis of a media product. Many simply don't like us criticizing their favorite TV show, or perhaps a naughty nurse ad that gave them a thrill. Many also argue that speech does not affect what people think or do, a claim their own objections would seem to disprove, to say nothing of the extensive research showing that the media does affect health-related views and actions.

No one is immune from criticism. We ourselves have been asked to retract things, and to change or remove things on our web site. In some cases we have done so, in many others we have not, but in no case have we suggested that dissenters are interfering with our right to free speech. People have every right to ask us to change, to mount campaigns to get us to change, and to make lawful decisions on that basis, such as refusing to give us money, telling everyone they dislike us, and so on. We have received a significant amount of harsh criticism; some of it appears on our own discussion board. We analyze each complaint on the merits and try to act responsibly. Everyone has a right to speak, and everyone has a right to object to that speech.

last updated: December 15, 2005

 

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