Roanoke Times editorial misstates basis of ER campaign, then attacks it
November 19, 2003 -- Today the Roanoke Times dismissed the Center's campaign to persuade "ER" to portray nursing more fairly in an editorial that appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of the previous day's Washington Post article about the campaign.
The Roanoke Times editorial first noted, with clear skepticism, that television had been blamed for various social ills. Then it claimed that the Center "blames 'ER' for the nationwide nursing shortage, accusing the show of portraying nurses as handmaidens to physicians," and noted that the Center questioned whether viewers would want to be nurses after seeing the show. The editorial concluded: "Using the group's logic, Americans should blame NBC's "The West Wing" for the dramatic intrigue emanating from the White House."
In fact, the Center has argued only that popular media products like "ER" contribute to the shortage by influencing how people view health care and make relevant decisions, as reflected in recent research specifically discussed in the Post article. In the Center's view, public attitudes toward nursing play a key role in the more obvious factors in the shortage, such as short-staffing, which is after all a result of economic decisions made by members of the public. The headline of the Post story did state in part: "RNs blame crisis on TV's 'ER.'" But the Center has not argued that the show is the sole cause of the shortage, as a careful reading of the Post article itself would have revealed. (Of course, applying the Center's actual "logic" to "The West Wing" would mean only that the show affects how the public looks at White House jobs, not that it dictates what the current holders of those jobs actually do.)
The research supporting the Center's actual position is compelling. In 2000, JWT Communications did focus group studies on 1800 students in grades 2-10 in 10 U.S. cities, and found that the youngsters got their most striking visualization of nursing from "ER." Under "ER"'s influence, the youngsters considered nursing a technical career "like shop" -- "not a profession. They did not consider nursing a career suitable for private school students, because "more" is expected of them. In their view, nursing was "a girl's job."
In a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study, more than half of regular "ER" viewers studied reported that they learned about health issues on "ER" and discussed them with their friends and family. A third used "ER" to help them make choices about their or a family member's health care. The study concluded that it was worth the effort to make entertainment television like "ER" as accurate as possible because of its potential influence on the public. On the other hand, the authors stressed, "fictional depictions could lead to viewers' obtaining inaccurate information or taking away critical misperceptions about health topics."
This research shows that many people, especially youngsters, take very seriously what they learn from popular media products like "ER." Yet the show regularly misrepresents nurses as peripheral subordinates to over 20 million U.S. households, at a time when their profession is in crisis--key underlying issues that the Roanoke Times, in an apparent rush to attack a distortion of the Center's position, did not deem worthy of comment.