Woodhull Study Revisited: Nurses Still Invisible in Media


No one is talking about nurses, the work we do or listening to what we have to say. The conclusion that, after two decades, nurses remain invisible in health news was reached by a landmark replication study presented during Nurses Week. The knowledge and experience of nurses are relevant to health issues, and these results show that nurses, the media, and hospitals have a lot of work to do to make nurses’ voice heard.

The preliminary findings of the “The Woodhull Study Revisited: Nurses’ Representation in Health News Media” were presented to the US National Press Club on May 8. The first part of the study, which was conducted by Nursing Centre for Health Policy and Media engagement at the George Washington University, was a close replication of the 1997 Woodhull Study on Nursing and the Media: Health Care’s Invisible Partner which was published by Sigma Theta Tau International in 1998.

Nurses in health care news reports

The original Woodhull research, using print media, was replicated as closely as possible in the first part of the study. More than 500 health-related articles that appeared during September 2017 were analyzed.

Image via: nursing.gwu.edu

According to a study by the Woman’s Media Centre, woman was quoted in only 34% of healthcare news stories and appeared in 48% of images. While women represent 51% of the population, men appeared in 72% of the images.

There are 3.5 million nurses in the USA, 90% are female, and they are by far most abundant group of health professionals. They were hardly represented in the media at all. Nurses were quoted or identified as sources in only 2% of health-related articles in daily newspapers and only 1% of weeklies and health industry publications. Nurses, or the nursing profession, were mentioned in only 13% of the stories about health care – and then mostly in articles about labor affairs or the profession, and almost never concerning health and policy issues. This occurred even where a nursing perspective would have been very relevant to the story. Nurses were identified in only 4% of the images that went with the articles.

Image via: nursing.gwu.edu

“So, the conclusion of this Phase 1 of the study is that nurses remain invisible in health news stories,” said Diana Mason, Professor at the GWU School of Nursing and the principal investigator of the study.

The barriers for journalists in using nurses as sources 

The researchers went further than the original study by setting out to determine journalists’ experiences in using nurses as sources. They did this by interviewing journalists and analyzing their responses.

Image via: nursing.gwu.edu

“The major overall theme was the biases about women and nurses, and the positions of power in the health care system, getting in the way,” explained Mason. A significant finding was, however, that “The journalists told us that when we use nurses as sources we get an important perspective and it enriched the reporting.”

It was clear that journalists did not clearly understand the roles, work, and education of nurses. They didn’t always know how to find them in the time they had available, and the communication staff of organizations did not offer nurses for interviews unless the journalists asked for them. Reporters often had to justify why they used nurses as sources, where this was seldom required when medical practitioners were used. Nursing organizations and nursing journals also failed to use media to the best advantage compared to, for example, medical journals.


Nurses talk to nurses in their tweets

In Phase 3 of the study, Twitter accounts of 47 top nursing schools were analyzed to find out how faculty and research staff were positioned as experts to attract the attention of journalists. This was done by examining the main hashtags used in 3,200 recent tweets. The hashtags used showed that 80% of the tweets were inward bound – speaking specifically to nurses or members of the faculty or school community. Only 20% of the tweets were outward bound – tweets beyond nurses and nursing, on topics like health issues that could attract the attention of people outside the profession, including journalists.

Image via: nursing.gwu.edu

The researchers also established that only 1% of the Twitter followers of all the nursing schools were members of any media, including those who worked for the publications within the specific organization.

What nurses need to do

Mason believes that there are solutions and announced that an action plan would follow the study. She explained that nursing departments and chief nursing officers need to bring the study results to the attention of their public relations departments and meet with them regularly. They need to put forward the nurse experts within their organization and also provide these nurses with media competencies.

Image via: nursing.gwu.edu

Panelists, providing the views of the media after the presentation of the findings, had further advice for nurses.

“Make sure your voices are heard. Making better use of social media, so that you are not just talking to each other but that you are talking to other people”, encouraged Yanick Lamb, Chair of the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Howard University.

“I’d like to urge nurses to make yourselves available,” said Ivan Oravsky, President of the Association of Health Care Journalists. “Think about a relationship with reporters – be useful, share an interesting story that is available.” In this way, the nurse will become the “go-to” person when the reporter is facing a deadline and needs a quick comment.

Further findings of this study will be published in nursing journals and uploaded on ww.go.gwu.edu/woodhull.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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