Dear Editor: Writing Letters to the Media

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

There’s no question that the media have a big influence on how the public views nurses. So, providing regular input and feedback, both positive and negative, to editors and producers is every nurse’s responsibility. Whether sending a note to the editor of a magazine or newspaper or an e-mail or fax to the producer of a TV or radio show, the media feedback letter can be used to express a viewpoint, correct or applaud information, inform and teach the media and public about nursing and health care, suggest topics for future coverage, promote a more accurate and positive image of nursing, and make nursing more visible in general.

Here are a few examples of how and when to use a feedback letter to the media:

Comment on nursing’s image

Note how nurses are portrayed, covered, and spoken about in TV dramas, sitcoms, news reports, and talk shows. Read magazine and newspaper articles about nursing and health care. Pay attention to advertising, both print and broadcast, that uses nursing characters and images. Respond to favorable stories and images, as well as inaccurate and damaging images. Here’s an excerpt from a letter I sent to a popular mainstream magazine: “Thanks for the great article by Carol Hardy entitled ‘Where Are the Nurses?’ (2/30/04). It was right on the money about working conditions and substandard staffing levels. Thanks, too, for portraying nurses in such a positive light. We’re in the headlines as soon as we make a mistake but rarely for the good things we do.”

Correct, inform, or enlighten

Last year, a popular weekly news magazine ran a cover story about hot job opportunities for the future. In spite of a well-publicized nursing shortage, not one mention was made of nursing. Here’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote to the editor: “There was one glaring omission to the ‘Careers to Count On’ article (2/18/04) — nursing. With an estimated 100,000 current vacancies and an estimated shortage of more than 400,000 nurses by 2020, it is one of the hottest job prospects around.” I went on to provide information about salaries, sign-on bonuses, opportunities, and rewards.

Hints for writing effective letters

• Letters should be short and to the point, about 200 to 300 words. The shorter it is, the more likely it is to be read.
• Make only one point per letter.
• Include your name, address, and phone number. This is necessary for credibility and verification. Anonymous letters are usually disregarded. If your letter is published, your name and hometown may be included (unless you ask that it not be), but your address and phone number wouldn’t.
• Include your nursing credentials after your name, and, if appropriate, in the body of the letter. For example: “As an RN with more than 30 years of hospital experience …”
• When writing, faxing, or e-mailing in response to an article, use the subject line or heading “Letter to the Editor” so it gets routed correctly.
• When responding to a specific article, state the article title and include the date in parenthesis.
• Use a direct but respectful tone. Don’t make personal attacks.

Things you should know

• Editors and producers get hundreds and sometimes thousands of letters. The more letters received about a news story, article, or issue, the more attention, not to mention credibility, the viewpoints expressed will have. Out of the many letters received, one or two may be published on a particular topic. Even if your letter isn’t published, it can still influence future coverage.
• Your letter doesn’t have to be worded perfectly to make a point. If published, your letter will most likely be edited and shortened.
• Each publication and media outlet has a preferred way to be contacted. Look for information in the publication or on the program’s/publication’s website.
• You don’t have to be an expert to state your point of view.
• If you wish to comment on the nursing profession as a whole and need facts and statistics, check with your professional associations, do an Internet search, or check with nursing media agencies like the Center for Nursing Advocacy
Rather than complaining about inaccurate or absent coverage of nurses in the media, let your presence be known and your voice be heard. We’ll never change our image or the public’s understanding of who we are and what we do if we stay quietly in the background. It’s time to start making our presence known and setting the record straight.

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