Leadership Interviews – “3 Questions” – Diana Mason on Nurses and the Media
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Nurses’ Visibility in Health Policy – Speak Up!
Diana Mason - Past Editor of the American Journal of Nursing, Rudin Professor at Hunter College Bellevue School of Nursing, and Director of the Center for Health Media and Health
Question 1: In the late 1990s, Sigma Theta Tau did a study of nurses’ representation in health stories by major print newspapers, weekly news magazines, and health care publications. Their results were disturbing. Nurses were represented less than 4% of the time, even though they would have been germane to the story. Are we doing any better today and does it matter?
Diana Mason: The Woodhull study that was published by Sigma Theta Tau in the late 1990s did find that nurses were underrepresented not only in public media but in our own media such as Modern Healthcare. I think we were represented in Modern Healthcare health stories less than 1% of the time even though we could have contributed significantly to the storyline. What was brilliant about Sigma Theta Tau’s follow-up was that they held regional meetings in which they had panels of nurses and journalists to comment on the story. So it raised visibility on this issue among journalists, particularly women journalists, since we’re predominantly still a female profession. Women journalists understand gender issues that prevail in many professions, and I think for some of them they realized they were doing a disservice to the healthcare field by not including nurses in their stories. At the panel that I was on in the Northeast region, a journalist who was there was a television journalist who brought the cameras into that meeting and actually did reporting there from that meeting.
And so Sigma not only held these regional meetings to raise the awareness of the issues among journalists and among nurses, but they also developed media expert lists of nurses on various topics and they did media outreach. And I think that really did have an impact on the extent to which nurses have become more visible in media.
I have to share with you that about three weeks ago I was reading a story in the New York Times. I pay attention to the issues that are being represented in public media on health and whether they are referring just to physicians or nurses or other health care providers – not just nurses, but social workers nutritionists etc. Increasingly, the language is physicians and nurses; and in this story, the language was nurses, physicians and other health care providers. And I thought, “Gee, haven’t we come a long way when nurses are positioned first in the sentence even before physicians.”
So I think we are more visible in the media. I think also a factor is that there are more nurses who are going into journalism. I’m a member of the Association for Healthcare Journalism and there is a listserv where journalists post questions and ask for help on stories etc. Increasingly there are nurses who are participating in that conversation. So I try to make it a point that if I know a nurse or another healthcare provider or a good physician to make sure that I’m offering those folks up as a source. And I think all of this makes a difference, including the visibility of nurses as experts in healthcare that have come to the attention through the Institute of Medicine’s report on the Future of Nursing. I think journalists are realizing, increasingly, that nurses have a different perspective on health and healthcare, but we’re still not where we need to be.
2. Why are nurses still not at the top of journalists’ lists for interviews about health stories?
Diana Mason: Nurses are still not up at the top of the list for a couple of reasons. We need to do better media outreach. I would question how many people who are listening to this interview would be able to say that their institution regularly promotes their work and their expertise to public media even in within their region. We often don’t think to work with our PR people around promoting the work that we are doing.
Second, is because we’re scared of the media. [For example], Irene Wielawski is a journalist who actually sits on the board of the Association for Healthcare Journalists and has written for the New York Times, Health Affairs, etc. She was on the planning committee for a conference the Association for Healthcare Journalists was holding in Miami on older adult health issues. She chaired a panel on workforce issues and asked me for names of nurses because she understands that it’s important to get nurses’ views on these issues. I gave her the names of several leading experts in the field. She got back to me later and told me that she was unable to get any of them to be on the panel. One had her assistant say she was away and would get back to her in two weeks. Another said she had meetings that day and wouldn’t be able to do it. Irene said to me: ”when I called physicians, the physicians had other meetings but understood the power and the opportunity of being in front of healthcare journalists on a panel. One immediately said, ‘I’d be happy to do this and I will rearrange my schedule to do so.’”
So why aren’t nurses grabbing these opportunities? I think it’s because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that we might say something wrong. We might misstep with the media and might embarrass ourselves. So I think we have to be a little bit more risk-taking. We have to be willing to be more responsive to journalists – if a journalist is on deadline, that journalist is not going to wait a week for you to respond!
3. What should we be doing to increase nurses’ visibility as leaders in health care and health policy?
Diana Mason: We have to be more media savvy, and to be more media savvy, I think we need media training. Media training prepares people to deal with tough questions; prepares people to keep the focus on the issues that you want to talk about rather than where the journalist wants to take it; and to give you a bit more of a comfort zone in dealing with media. So I think one strategy for dealing with this is media training. I think we also need to examine if we say we are world leaders what does that mean? Part of leadership is being spokespeople around the important issues of our day. Media is very influential in shaping those issues and deciding which issues get on the agenda.
So I would challenge all of us who see ourselves as leaders, to think about how are we doing with the media? What do we need to do to develop our skill set to be more effective in interfacing with the media? And to take advantage of some of the media opportunities that exist – not to wait for them but to go after those media opportunities. I think it’s really important that we keep putting our perspective out there defining what is important to us.
The Woodhull Study on Nursing and the Media (1998). Sigma Theta Tau International. Available at: http://www.nursingsociety.org/Media/Documents/Woodhull%20Study%20Part%201.pdf
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