Social Worker Perceptions of the Portrayal of the Profession in the News and Entertainment Media: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

IN RECENT YEARS, social workers have been featured on prime time television shows such as Judging Amy and Norm that display the extremes of the mass media portrait of social workers. The ABC sitcom, Norm (now in reruns), featuring a "social worker" as the central character, began airing in the spring of 1999. This sitcom instigated immediate reaction among professional social workers. Social work Web sites were electrified with comments, most highly negative, about this portrayal of a social worker ("Members Say," 1999). The character Norm, as portrayed in the sitcom, was presented as a hockey player who worked as a "social worker" in a form of community service for conviction of tax fraud. He was given the choice of going to jail or becoming a "social worker." Many professional social workers were outraged at the mockery of the profession created by this sitcom.

On the positive end of the media portrait of social workers, the series Judging Amy, also debuted in 1999 on CBS and featured a child welfare worker as a main character. In this program, the social worker portrayed many of the qualities endorsed by the social work profession such as compassion and integrity. This series presented a more positive depiction of social workers to the public and has been praised and supported by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (Tower, 2000).

The social work profession has long been concerned with how it is portrayed in the media (Franklin & Parton, 1991; Gabor, 1990; McGowan & Walsh, 2000). The social work profession should indeed be concerned with its portrayal in the media as retention, funding, and recruitment have been shown to be influenced by the media. Research studies in the United Kingdom (UK) reveal that the constant criticism and misrepresentation of social services demoralizes social workers (Franklin, 1998). In a survey of 3,000 social work professionals in the United Kingdom, 92% thought that staff morale was damaged by the way the media reports on social care ("Social Workers Wary," 2005). In addition, media representation of the social work profession has an impact on the conduct and professional practice of social work and influences the public esteem in which social workers are held. By informing and influencing the mood of public opinion, media representation ultimately affects social policy concerning social services, social workers, and their clients (Franklin, 1998). In general, media coverage often influences the prioritizing of resources within social service agencies most often in favor of child protection services to the comparative neglect of other social concerns (Franklin, 1998). Avoiding becoming the next case highlighted on the front page of the newspaper can be a powerful influence on the provision of social services.

Of particular concern to social work educators is the media's influence on recruitment of social work students. Jennifer Bernard of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work attributes the fall in number of social work students in the United Kingdom in part to social work's poor image ("As Drop in Social Work Students Accelerates," 1998). Further, 80% of 3,000 social workers surveyed by Community Care in 2005 thought that recruitment and retention of staff in the UK was exacerbated by the way the media reports on social care ("Social Workers Wary," 2005).

A positive image is important to the vitality and effectiveness of the social work profession (Reid & Misener, 2001), especially in light of studies which have shown that most people do not engage in personal contact with professional social workers. A 1981 survey of 994 people within Great Britain (Weir, 1981) found that 29% of the sample had come into contact with a social worker. Of these 29% the contacts occurred in the following forms: work (26%), voluntary work (8%), going to see a social worker (19%), social worker visited them (35%), or social worker visited an acquaintance (6%). …