Washington Post highlights Center's "ER" campaign
November 18, 2003 -- Today's Washington Post ran a lengthy, very good piece by Sandra G. Boodman, "Nursing a Lousy Image--RNs Blame Crisis on TV's 'ER,'" as one of the lead articles on the front page of its weekly Health section.
The article did a good job of explaining the basis for the Center's campaign to persuade "ER" to portray nursing more accurately and fairly. It cited specific problem elements of the show, including its incorrect portrayal of nurses as subservient to physicians, depictions of physicians "usurping jobs typically performed by nurses," including defibrillation and family counseling, and the Lockhart character's recent abandonment of nursing for medical school. It made the connection between the show and public attitudes toward nursing by referring to recent studies showing how seriously people take the show's portrayal of health issues in general and professional roles in particular. To underline the severity of the nursing shortage, it pointed to the powerful recent Institute of Medicine study warning of risks to patients because of nurses' poor working conditions. The article also featured effective quotes from Center board member and Johns Hopkins nursing professor Linda C. Pugh, Center advisory panel member and American Journal of Nursing Editor-in-Chief Diana J. Mason, and Truth executive director Sandy Summers. And it provided some historical perspective on nurses in the popular media, including photos and some discussion of well known nurse characters, including Carol Hathaway from the early years of "ER" and Margaret Houlihan from "M*A*S*H."
The piece also rightly included quotes from persons associated with "ER" in defense of the show. Warner Brothers Television spokesman Phil Gonzalez argued that the show "goes to great lengths to portray medical situations accurately"--effectively confirming the disparity between the show's efforts to achieve technical medical accuracy and its woeful stabs at nursing accuracy. Gonzalez added that nurses serve as advisors on the set, as if that excused or negated what appears on screen each week. An "executive associated with the show who spoke on the condition that his name not be published" noted that "ER" was "a television show, not a documentary" and asked "Wasn't there a nursing shortage before 'ER?'" Of course, there were nursing shortages before "ER"'s 1994 debut, though it has been estimated that hospitals began feeling the effects of the current shortage in 1998. But the Center has not argued that "ER" has been the sole cause, only that influential media products like "ER" are one important factor in the cultural and economic mix that has led to the shortage, which is far more severe than any in recent memory. Neither person associated with the show appeared to have any specific answer to the Center's arguments about "ER"'s actual portrayal of nursing.
A few minor clarifications are in order. The article's sub-headline ("RNs Blame Crisis on TV's 'ER'") may suggest to some that the Center feels that the show is solely responsible for the shortage, though the article itself does not support that interpretation and the Center has not argued that. Recently, some "ER" staff nurses staged a walkout to protest management plans to cut back their hours and hire recent nursing graduates who would supposedly work for "minimum wage." After a physician fired some of these staff nurses, foreign-born replacements were brought in; these nurses have been mocked for their language skills, but it's not clear if the show thinks they work for minimum wage. Renee Zellweger's "Nurse Betty" character was actually not a nurse, but someone who started to believe she was a nurse after experiencing trauma. And while the Center generally admired the nurse character played by Audra McDonald in the film "Wit," we would not describe her (as the Post's photo caption did) as an "[e]mpathic ideal," because we felt she could have been more assertive, and because we would not want to suggest that empathy is the ultimate virtue in nursing, a profession that requires many things including critical thinking, courage, communication skills, and hard work.
The Post's free daily tabloid "express," which is essentially a short summary version of the regular daily edition, does not include the article, but has a provocative teaser, with its first sentence in red type:
"So not all nurses are hot? Are 'ER'--the NBC show--nurses to blame for the nursing shortage? One group thinks so. In today's Washington Post, Health."
This is an interesting spin, since the article itself does not address the "naughty nurse" stereotype. And the Center's concerns lie with the actions of the "ER" producers and writers who control how nursing is presented, not with the show's nurse characters themselves.
Boodman's story also appeared in many newspapers across the US.
Sandra Boodman can be sent a note of thanks at firstname.lastname@example.org