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From M*A*S*H to ER, House to Nurse Jackie and more, television has represented nurses in varying degrees, and not all of it flattering. Many medical dramas depict doctors doing nursing work, including starting IVs and providing bedside care at all hours. Nurses have been portrayed as handmaidens, angels, naughty nurses, and crusty battle-axes. These images denigrate that fact that nurses are college-educated healthcare professionals with critical responsibilities.

Nurse Jackie has been hotly discussed in the LinkedIn Nurse Educators group as a poor representation of nurses because of the eponymous character’s drug addiction and other questionable behavior. But is this any different than how other professions are portrayed? Do doctors really act like those on House or Grey’s Anatomy? Are all cops rude and abusive to suspects, as seen in many cop shows? Are all lawyers sleazy? Many professions are generalized for the sake of ratings. Some comments on the LinkedIn discussion suggest nurses need to “lighten up” and realize that fictional shows bear no resemblance to the true work of nurses. Is it okay to recognize that nursing portrayals are for dramatic effect and not reality?

Some say not. Maria Quimba, RN, MA Bioethics, MBA, MSN, director of professional studies at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ, posted the following to the LinkedIn group: “Anyone who has studied sociology or psychology can tell you (and support their views with evidence) that negative imagery in media influences the perceptions and behaviors of the public—particularly those that are impressionable (namely youth and the less educated)”. Studies support that media influence the public opinion of various diseases as well as the nursing profession.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), School of Nursing held a symposium in May 2012 regarding nurses and the media. The overarching theme was that nurses need to be proactive in influencing the public’s image of the profession. MarySue Heilemann, RN, PhD, is an associate professor at the UCLA School of Nursing and the symposium creator. “Reruns and current shows are being shown in different countries all over the world, and how they portray nurses has an effect on how people in any society perceive nursing,” she said. She postulated that these negative images could contribute to the overall nursing shortage.

It is up to the profession to influence perceptions and educate the public about what nurses actually do. Suggestions from the symposium included getting involved in hometown affairs, reaching out to local reporters who cover health care by offering tips on healthcare trends and acting as an expert source. Nurses can hone their message through media training on giving interviews. A broader audience can be reached by working through both traditional and new media.

Not all media depicts nursing poorly. Who has watched some of the Johnson and Johnson television commercials on nurses and not been moved? One of the more poignant ads is a male nurse singing with a pediatric patient while he gives chemotherapy. These types of commercials, reaching millions of people, may go a long way in having a positive impact on the image of nursing.