The power of the press and nursing homes

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Do you do plenty of good work in your long-term care setting? Of course you do.

Do you feel like the public knows this well enough? Of course you don't.

If you're one of the dwindling crowd reading a daily newspaper in the U.S., you're most likely to see articles about nursing homes with either a negative or neutral tone to them. That doesn't make things right, but it shouldn't be shocking to anyone even remotely affiliated with long-term care.

At least now you have confirmation why the skilled nursing profession doesn't leave everyone feeling warm and fuzzy. Newly published research tells the story.

A trio of researchers systematically analyzed the tone, content, placement and other factors of more than 16,000 articles in the LexisNexus database mentioning nursing homes in 51 U.S. newspapers from 1999 to 2008.

Most articles were neutral (45.5%) or negative (36.9%) in tone. About 1 in 8 (12.6%) were positive, while 5.0% were “mixed.”

Their findings appeared in the June issue of World Medical & Health Policy (Volume 10, Issue 2), which was published just last Thursday. Relatively speaking, that's hot off the press.

In a telling sign of precisely how tempting it is to stack results in favor of one's argument, the researchers' own abstract listed the results in non-numerical order to better pose their hypothesis. The order went: negative, neutral, positive and “mixed,” even though “neutral” was the highest value and arguably should have gone first.

“Findings highlight the preponderance of negative coverage and suggest that its adverse influence on public attitudes toward nursing homes may be enhanced by its prominence and focus on state/local concerns and industry interests/behavior,” the abstract notes.

In other words, lots of negative articles make your neighbors wonder how you could work for such terrible places. Part of the fault also could be due to “state/local concerns” or you and your colleagues' “interests/behavior.”

Biggest eye-opener

I, for one, will be glued to any future research that might come of this. The study authors propose further examination of “the relationship between media coverage and government agendas” and provider outcomes.

If and when this occurs, don't expect many surprises. You're going to find out what you already know: There's a lot that focuses on the bad, or what's thought to be bad.

This is especially true when you're dealing with frail, elderly loved ones. If things aren't going well with them, the natural instinct is ask who is doing something wrong to, from or around them. Add the fact that most nursing home care is funded by taxpayers, and you have even more incentive for critical stories from the mainstream media. Mess with one's loved ones, that's one transgression, but misspend my tax money? A whole other level.

But who ever said there has to be a 50%-50% split on “good” and “bad” stories? Or that other professions and subject areas get a preponderance of “favorable” coverage?

When it comes to serious topics, people do not want to read good news as much as they do negative, or precautionary tales. This has been shown time and time again in readership interest studies.

Notice I didn't say people do not want to read ANY good news, or that they don't like to read good news. Of course, we all do. But when given the choice, human nature will pull the reader toward the odd occurrence, the “man bites dog” story or “thing that needs fixing.”

Sounds like the perfect recipe for how nursing home stories find their way to the mainstream press, eh?

That said, I believe the most eye-opening finding from this study was that “neutral” was the biggest category of stories. Most people would bet the mortgage that “negative” would be the runaway winner. Ironically, if the press wanted to defend itself, it could report the study results like this: Well over half of the articles (58.1%) were either positive or neutral in tone. How's that for turning perceptions on their head?

As you, the long-term care worker, know all too well, attitudes and expectations always frame perceptions. What's fair to expect? What resident and family expectations need molding? Well, all of them, of course.

'Brighter' stories

Amid all of this talk about “good” news and “bad” news and positive tone and negative tone, I must point out that McKnight's knows first hand about the challenges of finding positive stories about you in the general media.

Each day, we publish stories that better inform and educate you to bring more success in your professional life. If it means a wince, furrowed brow or a roll of the eyes every now and then, so be it. You would be ignoring the value of such items at your own professional risk.

But a little over a year ago, we began “The Brighter Side,” an added story to our Daily Update newsletter. Appearing every Wednesday morning, like today, it is designed to bring you a grin or at least a nod of satisfaction about something happening in long-term care. Kind of like an evening news sign-off, which always seems to bring a final bit of lighter news.

If you've been unaware that these nuggets have resided as the Daily Update sign-off, and are always near the bottom of the first column at www.mcknights.com, be unaware no more.

You do good work and deserve a “Brighter” look at things amid everything else also going on in the world today.

Follow this link for a running compilation of "The Brighter Side" stories.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.

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