Nurses in the Media

By Bobbie Berkowitz, PhD, RN, FAAN Dean, Columbia University School of Nursing

August 5, 2014

Nurses concerned about their image in the media enjoyed a small but significant victory recently when MTV, responding to pressure from the nursing community and an advocacy organization, agreed to move its nursing reality program, “Scrubbing In” to a less prominent time and re-edit some of the episodes.

For those of you who haven’t followed the controversy, “Scrubbing In, which premiered in October, follows a group of travel nurses assigned to work at an Orange County, CA hospital for twelve weeks. The results are typical reality TV fare: lots of disagreeable in-fighting, romantic escapades, hard partying … and the occasional patient interaction. The program has been criticized for portraying nurses as self-centered, uncaring, unprofessional, and unintelligent. I don’t suggest that you watch an entire episode, but a look at the official MTV trailer for the program will give you a good idea of what you are not missing.

Sadly, the portrayal of nurses in the media as “hell raisers,” “heart breakers,” and “fun seekers” (as the promo states) is nothing new.  Nurses on television and in movies are often cast in the role of “the naughty nurse,” as documented by Sandy Summers RN, MSN, MPH and Harry Jacobs Summers in their book, Saving Lives: Why Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Put Us All At Risk. But nurses as vixens are not the only stereotype to be found in the media. Nurses have often been unfairly and unrealistically portrayed as “battle axes” or psychologically compromised. And that’s if they are written into the script at all.  In such popular television medical dramas as “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” where collectively there are 20 major physician characters, there are no leading nurse characters at all.

You would be hard pressed to find a nurse portrayed in the popular media demonstrating clinical skill, diligence, or compassion.  Nurses are not seen delivering care as autonomous and knowledgeable professionals, monitoring the condition of the patient, and working in tandem with physicians to keep patients healthy and safe. With few exceptions, the media rarely portrays nurses providing care in settings other than the hospital, such as community clinics, outpatient facilities, or in the home. Instead, they are often portrayed as physician helpers, not the highly skilled independent clinicians that we know they are.

These stereotypes demean our profession and are an affront to the years of education and hard work we have devoted for the privilege of delivering care to patients.  The media’s negative view of the profession acts as a powerful force to shape the public’s attitudes towards nursing and prejudice young people from entering the field. The depiction of nurses as being a gender-bound career has certainly been a deterrent for men entering the nursing profession.  But possibly more telling is a 2008 study by nursing scholars at the University of Dundee (UK) that found the unflattering TV image of nurses discouraged some academically advanced students from pursing the profession.

Fortunately, despite these negative portrayals, surveys in this country year after year continue to show that nurses remain the nation's most trusted professionals. Most people understand that nurses are dedicated, caring professionals. But insulting portrayals and juiced-up “reality” shows that encourage stereotypical thinking can still do harm.

I am hopeful that the day will come when television and movie audiences are exposed to portrayals of the superb care provided by nurses and the compassion we show.  Until that time comes, we will continue to advocate for our profession and our patients by calling attention to media prejudice and stereotyping when and wherever it appears.