James M. Berklan, McKnight's Editor

At first it looked like just another round of whining about the media. Nothing gets more tedious than long-term care providers — or any other special interest group, for that matter — making off-base comments about their portrayal in the popular press. Because usually they are — off-base that is.

But this account, this commentary became something much better. Despite the headline (“Nursing Homes in Print Media: Mostly Negative Coverage”), the summary I read about this media research proved insightful and, therefore, possibly helpful to providers.

To the Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging, which hosted the commentary, “Good show,” I say. This is the same group that only three months ago announced a new initiative called Investigage to disseminate a multitude of eldercare research for stakeholders.

Author John Davy’s report about researchers who wrote in the journal Medical Care could have dived straight into pity-party mode. In the first sentence, the stage is set: Nursing homes have a generally negative public image, and that is likely influenced by media coverage.

A study examining story placement and tone in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times showed that just fewer than 50% of nursing home stories were negative in tone while only 10.5% were positive. Uh-oh. Here it comes, I thought: Bad media, beating up on earnest providers. Tsk, tsk. (As a former newspaper editor and current business-to-business magazine/website editor, I feel fully qualified to judge from both sides on this one.)

But that’s when the richness of this report kicked in. It noted, for example, that the study time frame (1999-2008) included Hurricane Katrina coverage, which spawned an abundance of disaster stories and “negative” coverage.

It also appropriately reflected possible limitations of the study: Maybe examining other newspapers might not have brought the same study conclusions. “Further, they note that news media by their nature tend to highlight problems and other issues of concern,” the article reminds.

Moreover, study authors noted that they did not compare how another topic or industry might have fared under such scrutiny. In essence, they allowed that every sector might get the Vince Lombardi treatment in print. (A lineman for the iconic Green Bay Packers coach once quipped that Lombardi wasn’t being personally mean or prejudiced when he loudly criticized a certain player. “He treats us all like dogs,” he said.)

And so it might be with the news media, researchers acknowledged. You see, you might feel picked on, dear provider, but you’re hardly unique in that regard.

The piece concludes with some thoughtful advice on how providers can help themselves. Now that’s research and information worth shouting about.