By: Judith A. Davenport, Ph.D., LCSW, and Joseph Davenport, III, Ph.D., ACSW
Winter 1997, Vol. 4, No. 1
Social Workers: Fad-Chasing Jackasses or Still on the Side of the Angels?
by Judith A. Davenport, Ph.D., LCSW, and Joseph Davenport, III, Ph.D., ACSW
We remember reading that idealistic students were attracted to social work because the profession was seen as "on the side of the angels." However, social work students have often expressed concern with their professional image, especially as portrayed by the media, via television, film, and print. The prevailing view frequently voiced by students, as well as educators and practitioners, is that we are typically featured in unflattering, negative terms (e.g., child snatchers, ineffective do-gooders, fuzzy-thinking liberals, parasites on the public purse, self-serving bureaucrats). Such concern has led to efforts to improve this image. NASW developed television and radio spots, press releases, promotional materials for recruitment, and a list of consultants available to address specific topics and concerns. A special attempt was made to influence Hollywood through consultations, committees, and awards (NASW's National Communications Network). Social workers have written and spoken on means of establishing and maintaining positive relationships with the media.
These and other efforts have apparently paid off. After listening to student complaints for years, and after hearing a group of social work deans mention that they could not remember a positive story about social workers, we decided to conduct a study to determine just how bad the situation was.
We used a sample of convenience over a six-month period from March 1992 to September 30, 1992. This sample was derived from the reading and viewing habits of a "somewhat typical" educated couple living in a medium-sized community in mid-America. We subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (daily state and national paper), Columbia Tribune (daily local paper), Columbia Missourian (daily local paper), Port Gibson Reveille (weekly hometown paper), Money Magazine, and U.S. News and World Report. We also visited the public library about once a week and perused a range of magazines and newspapers. These included news magazines (e.g., Time, Newsweek), business magazines (e.g., Forbes, Fortune, Business Week), "women's" magazines (e.g., Redbook. McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan), "men's" magazines (e.g., Esquire, GQ) and state/national newspapers (e.g., Kansas City Star, Atlanta Constitution, Wall Street Journal). We did watch a fair amount of television, especially news programs, documentaries, political talk shows, and regular talk shows such as Oprah, Ricky Lake, Phil Donahue, and Montel Williams. We did not listen to much radio.
Over a six-month period, social work or social workers were mentioned 130 times. To our surprise, 86% were positive - social workers were seen as doing a good job, viewed as experts, or quoted because of their professional status. Only 3.8% were negative - social workers made a mistake, viewed as unethical; 3.1% were neutral - social worker used in obituary; and 6.9% were questionable - could be seen as positive or negative depending upon perception of the reader/viewer/listener. These results, which were presented in 1993 at the NASW conference in Orlando and featured in NASW News, surprised almost everyone and provided social workers with a needed boost in morale.
Since then, the national mood shifted while a nasty, devisive election changed the political equation. Some powerful voices, such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, questioned the role of government in providing social services, and it became increasingly politically acceptable to debate whether the poor, old, and disabled should be assisted outside the private sector. Charles Murray, his The Bell Curve, and Neo-Social Darwinism all seemed to be back in vogue. Conservative columnists such as Mona Charen and Thomas Sowell, a prominent African-American writer, made disparaging remarks about public social welfare in general and social work in particular. Sowell, seemingly bearing a personal grudge against social workers, referred to us as "fad-chasing jackasses." Charlie Reese and Mike Royko, who are general curmudgeons, also wrote columns that were at least questionable. These attacks often lacked consistency. For example, sometimes we were portrayed as "child snatchers" who wrecked families by seizing children because of rumors or flimsy evidence; other times we were so wedded to "fads" such as family preservation that we left children to suffer or die in horrible environments. (Although we know that the title "social worker" is used many times for any public social services worker, our image is based on any time the title is used.) Nevertheless, this possible change in image could have adverse consequences for social work's constituencies and for the profession itself.
Accordingly, a replication study of social work's media image was conducted to ascertain the impact of the momentous events as the congressional election campaign developed. Another six-month period, September 1, 1994 to February 28, 1995, was examined. Our second sample grew to 191,possibly because we aging baby boomers added Modern Maturity to our reading list, and possibly because we read more while riding stationary bikes at the gym in order to ward off those effects of aging!
The good news is that the overwhelming majority of references to social work are still positive, although the percentage dropped from 86% to 74%. Actual negative comments remained around four percent but questionable ones increased from around seven percent to 13%. Neutral comments increased from around three percent to around nine percent.
Newspapers, news magazines, and television news shows routinely use social workers as experts on a plethora of topics (e.g., addiction, AIDS, mental illness, poverty). Women's magazines reach tens of millions with social workers writing regular features or being quoted on topics such as domestic violence, sexual assault, eating disorders, and marital problems. Business magazines use us in stories on employee assistance programs, counseling "downsized" personnel, and managed care efficiencies.
Students and fellow social workers, please put down those crying towels and propensities to see the worst in a situation. We have arrived as a full-fledged, respected profession - one that is vital and indispensable to a modern society. Yes, there are some carping comments, and indeed we are not perfect. Legitimate criticism should be heard and used to improve professional effectiveness, which then adds to a positive image. Also, how well does our image stack up against other established professionals - such as lawyers, public school teachers, or politicians?
And as a final point, we conclude that most of the negative and questionable remarks come from conservative politicians and writers who dislike social workers because they dislike a major role for government in society. This philosophical difference is not likely to go away, since most social workers favor a major role for government support of social services. In fact, partisan attacks may increase as the political wars intensify, especially as social workers enter the political fray. We may have to accept the possibility that we will never be loved by everyone and that our positive media image will never register 100%. Moreover, we might really need to worry and ponder why if our image improved among the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Neo-Social Darwinist, and a motley collection of vitriolic right-wing flame-throwers.
Judith A. Davenport, Ph.D., LCSW, is director of the School of Social Work, University of Missouri-Columbia. Joseph Davenport, III, Ph.D., ACSW, is a private consultant.