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Poll: Is the Media Portrayal of Social Workers Off Base?


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  1. I definately think the image of social workers in television and movies could be improved. The media seems to want to put us all in one box…and it’s not a pretty one.

  2. I think that social workers are portrayed only as case managers. Which is a job I have actually never held – I’ve always worked in some form of clinical mental health.

  3. I belive as Social Workers, we do not do justice to ourselves as a group. I used to give my services for free and hardly ever demanded my full fee when I was seeing a client. I work with lawyers who are making 250 an hour and as a soc ial worker we are lucky to make 75 an hour. Then there are agencies who pay 15-20 dollars an hour to licensed social workers. I beleive we need to raise the bar in our field and demand more money and more respect for our chosen field.


  4. I am glad to see NASW start this program. I think it has great potential, and look forward to

  5. I think the image of social workers certainly can be improved. When I am asked about being a social worker, the immediate thought to people’s minds is welfare worker, solely helping poor people, or case managers. Mental health is usually associated with psychologist or LPC.

  6. We definately sell ourselves short. I am not aware of any other profession that does so much (never ending at times) for so little. We obtain the proper credientials and licenses, however our salaries seldom (if ever) reflect our education, experience and ‘willingness to go beyond’ attitude. In a society that sees individuals as weak if they need help, how are we to ever be taken seriously? It is up to us to be taken as seriously as all the other professions. It is up to us to earn saleries that reflect to great contributions we provide to people daily. We need to believe in ourselves! We face some challenges, indeed, as we strive to move forward. With our spirit and determination and ‘can do’ attitude, we WILL make it happen.



  7. We have a terrible image with the public. Not so much a bad one but almost an invisible one. The media and public and other collateral disciplines see us as case managers in the welfare Dept, and do-gooders to help with food stamps housing and goofy child snatchers. This image is our own fault because we only publish how we help the poor and the homeless, etc. Everytime there is shooting at a school the TV people interview the school psychologist and ditto for the work with Veterans. he public and the media rarely hear of the research conducted by our disciplines, the vigorous education and training of the MSWs. I could go on and on on this problem, but there is no vehicle in NASW or elsewhere to do anything on it.

    Just look at the new movie “precious”….The social worker is a frumpy woman…this is our public hollywood image!

  8. I work in health care and have always been annoyed by how nurses are glorified and made into superwomen ( albiet with no boundaries!) while social workers are generally either left out of the picture completely or portrayed as bleeding heart do-gooders or nasty people snatching kids away from their mothers.

    The show Transplant does not show social workers at all when we play a significant role in assessing potential recepients and donors. In a hospital drama like Grey’s Anatomy, with all the dying patients, why is there no social worker helping the family with trauma , grief and loss?
    I hear stories and scenarios of such tragedy and human suffering when supervising my staff – these social workers are in the trenches, facing very intense situations every day. They should make a tv show about what really happens in the ED, the MICU etc.

  9. First when will there ever be enough money to work with the tradegies that social worker work with. It is such a calling that while we all want to be able to pay our morgage, eat out once in awhile and buy a pair of shoes, it is not a profession that you get into for the monitary pay off. In terms of the media I would like to see them portrayed as , well informed professional in the area of emotions and behavior that is mixed with the passion to advocate for people who seem, for what ever reason to be in situations that keep them from being able to locate resources and or problem solve. I see social workers as caring and giving but fierce advocates and problem solvers. I would like the media to know that we follow a code of ethics and that when they portray a social worker they need to research the area the situation is taking place in and look at the policies and rules as well as the profession ethics of the social work profession. I think if this is done they would stand a better chance of portraying the social work professional in a more accurrate light.

  10. I think it is time for Social Workers to Arise! I think think that social workers are seen as being one dimensional. A more diverse portrait of social workers needs to be seen by the public. It is surprising that many people only associate social workers with the Department of Human Services. Although this if a reprsentation of social workers it is only a slice of what social workers do in society.

  11. Very few Americans, politicians, economists, and even social workers, know that the architect and administrator of a large majority of the New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the 1935 Social Security Act, under FDR was Harry Hopkins, a social worker.

    Social worker Harry Hopkins changed the country, and some would argue that he saved the country.
    We need a movie on Harry Hopkins.

  12. I agree with Carlos in his description of us as “nearly invisible” with only a few exceptions most of which are unflattering at best. I work with soldiers treating PTSD, Battle Stress, Reintegration difficulties with their families, etc. Many military SW’s are in the field of combat working with soldiers in hostile and dangerous situations. Social Workers are so respected and needed by the military that they have opened a School of Social Work of their own in an attempt to meet the growing need . Other civilian social workers are (as I am) working with them on the bases when they come home to their families after long, hard tours of duty. I read our boards that talk mostly of community work, school social work, child welfare, and gerentology and am always disappointed not to see continuing education articles or opportunities for social workers working with America’s tired and troubled veterans, active duty soldiers, and the families of these soldiers. I am also disappointed to see the media has managed to ignore us as well. I agree with the comment we have a “one dimensional” image and we need to present a diverse portrait to society and the media. To do that maybe we need to start at home in what we ourselves recognize and support.

  13. I think at times social workers take themselves a bit too seriously. I’m specifically recalling the “uproar” when the “Norm” show, a sitcom starring Norm McDonald as a felon who had to do community service as a social worker for his sentence. NASW even organized a protest to cancel the show. I wrote a letter then (1999) to NASW letting them know that I thought this sort of inability to laugh at the profession was embarrassing. At the time, I made a comparison to M*A*S*H and how silly it would have been if the AMA had protested it for somehow undermining the profession.

    Doing good, professional work is the way we change the perception of the profession. I know some people minimize what we do or have an incorrect image of the profession of social work despite the immense variation in who we are and what we do.

    I choose to focus on reality and working there and not putting immense energy thinking about how my profession may be portrayed in the occasional film and TV show. I’m sure those who have utilized us in our many capacities can see the differences when there are wildly inaccurate portrayals in the media. Conversations and information-sharing on a smaller scale is a more effective way of challenging the inaccuracies than another petulant protest.

  14. I don’t think the variety of roles a social worker can take is known to the general public. It’s often the frumpy do gooder in the poor neighborhoods. I am struggling with what direction to encourage my daughter who wants to pursue a counseling career to take. When I was in school MSW was the only way to go for insurance reimbursement. We were really resepected at least in our profession…not so much today. Marriage and Family Counselor sounds more elegant perhaps?
    In the media…I think it’s still psychologists and psychiatrists that get the recognition as a reputable profession…social workers are just helpers. We need to change this!!!!

  15. When I let my friends know I was going into social work, the majority asked me if I was going to be taking away people’s children. I think a lot of people see this as our main role. Way to go, media.

  16. I hear everyday from police, doctors, village members, and etc. “How do you do your job” it is simple, I tell them if I don’t advocate for the elderly who will? It is my opinion that all the seniors are looked upon as helpless and hopeless but they are poeople who have lived a long life who need help. This field is never seen in the media unless it is funny or someone has ended up dead. There is no middle ground for the elderly and they fall through the cracks. I am very hopeful that with things such as the Alzheimer’s Project on HBO and other outreach addressing these issues! It is a hard thing to see someone self neglecting and because they are an adult you can not tell them how to live so a lot of the times these seniors get overlooked because no one has an answer. I would like to see a positive side to social work with seniors and not just the end of life stuff that just makes evryone cry. Where is the middle ground for these people? The best social worker ever brought to life was on Judging Amy, her mother was a true advocate and I love watching old episodes.

  17. The best portrayal of the Social Worker ‘s role was demonstrated on the television show”Judging Amy.” Tyne Daily played the role of a Social Worker working in DCFS.

  18. This public image problem has been going on ever since I became a clinical social worker in 1970. It seems that NASW never tires of polling members for their opionion about our “public image.” The conclusion is always the same: “we need to do something about it!” But, alas, nothing ever seems to change. Many social workers and I advocated for changing the name to something other than social worker, at least for the clinical social worker. The name “Social Therapist” was bandied around, but nothing ever came of it because there was always stiff opposition from the the schools of social work who identified with our history and tradition. Today, as well as thirty-five years ago, I STRONGLY BELIEVE OUR IMAGE WILL NEVER CHANGE UNTIL WE CHANGE OUR NAME.

  19. When I think of the media, I see it as the primary source of our opinions. When I tell people that I’m going to be a social worker when I graduate, they usually say ‘oh, one of those’ and I’ll ask them what they mean and they reply ‘social workers only hurt people, they don’t help anyone, they take children away’ and so forth. And we wonder where those ideas come from?

  20. The media’s portrayal of Social Workers is definitely off base. I am currently a grad student studying for my MSW. When people say, “Oh you’re going to take kids away from their homes,” it just unnerves me.

  21. I agree with Norene Almeida; Amy’s mom on “Judging Amy” was a great character and given a significant role as a social worker. The technical end of things was way off (i.e. getting one case each episode that she fought through to the end), but Tyne Daly was a joy to watch. If anyone else is old enough, you might also remember a TV show called “East Side, West Side” with George C. Scott as a social worker in New York. Talk about countering the frumpy, passive, female image often portrayed!!!! He was wonderful.

    I am disturbed by some of the letters above referring to “case managers” in a tone that implies they are “less than.” Therapy is not the only professional part of social work. I have worked in child welfare for over 30 years and good case management– which includes building a relationship with clients, assessment of their strengths and needs, helping clients develop their own case plans, connecting them to the proper resources and evaluating the effectiveness of those resources–is a critical part of the job. It’s bad enough to have our professional skills looked down upon by the public, let alone other social workers.

    A couple of thoughts: What about a PBS special on social work? We’re a pretty interesting crowd and have good stories to tell. Social workers could be seen in many fields of service, such as hospitals, schools, child welfare, mental health, advocacy programs, community action, the military, and others. I’m sure to leave some out because we are everywhere. In fact, as I think about it, we’d make a good TV series. High drama, good and bad outcomes, interesting characters, comedy and pathos. Of course, TV is only one medium and there are many directions to go.

  22. I really enjoy watching Law and Order SVU but what pissed me off is that the Captain asked one of the detectives ‘what are you a social worker’? It was nice to see that the detective was thinking of something other the conviction but when has there been a social worker who was not a homicidal maniac on L&O? And Grey’s Anatomy, I don’t even want to talk about the lack of social workers there.

  23. I was watching ‘American Violet’ and the social workers (well cps people) are portrayed as rather heartless unthinking robots! “Do they look abused? That’s what we’re here to evaluate”.

    what’s even more crazy is one of the workers takes a snapshot picture of the little girl who answers the door, then around the house. i can see how people would rather not answer the door to a social worker.

  24. The poll results to date show the problem, and the problem is us. Majority saying media portrayal ‘can be improved’ is again eroding our value of our work by ourselves. The media stereotype is disparaging, outated, and just plain wrong. Since most of us are women, no surprise. Since we live in culteral norms valuing money over all else, no surprise.

    My thought is that a vote for ‘can be improved’ is our own devaluing of ourselves. Heck, the media portrayal of us is just plain “BAD.”

  25. The media portrayal of social workers is pretty stereotypical. Tyne Dailey in Judging Amy was a close resemblence of a DCS caseworker, but that’s about as far as it goes. When Norm was sentanced to be a social worker for his community service, what outraged me was that he was doing community service and it was titled social work! His consequence for breaking the law was to be a social worker!! Which brings up another beef. If we wish to improve our image with the media and everywhere else, when are we going to stop allowing non-social workers to use the title?? DCS case managers with a bachelors degree in art history get to call themselves a social worker. Case managers at the mental health center call themselves social workers. At some point, we must insist that the term social worker is used only with a degree in social work or a social work licence! Not long ago I told someone I was a social worker and she said, “my mom has been a social worker for years!” After further conversation, I learned that she was a client advocate at the local mental health center, not with a degree in social work, but a high school diploma. Her official title was client advocate, but she had been calling herself a social worker for years!! I am a social worker and all that being a social worker implies. I do not call myself a nurse or a doctor because I clean and bandage a cut on my husband’s arm!! Our image is what we make it and what we demand others to make it as well.

  26. I am so relieved to have a forum where our profession is discussed from the actual professionals. I am hoping that change occurs from our feedback. I work in the state of New Jersey and I cannot applaud enough what Ms. Eads posted on Nov. 3rd. We cannot expect anything different from the media if WE DO NOT reclaim our professional title. Everyone thinks that they can call themselves a social worker…and never been to school let alone have a MSW. Department of Youth and Family services and Adult protective service call their…high school educated, bachelors in economic employees SOCIAL WORKERS. It is insulting and a discredit to our education, clinical skills and value to our profession.
    A Physician Assistant would not dare to call themselves a DOCTOR or allow others to perceive them as a DOCTOR. Physicians have claimed their profession. A Licensed Practical Nurse is NEVER placed or viewed as an equal to a Registered Nurse (RN). Point blank there is a difference.

    In life there are volunteers, good Samaritans, case managers, case workers and SOCIAL WORKERS. The last time I checked Boston University would not issue my MSW without the proper education and payment………

  27. Only recently I retired from a rather stressful federal position. I reside in Latin America now but watch TV and especially CNN news regularly. Not too many months ago I watched the news of a horrific murder and Anderson Cooper reported that the man was, among other things, a social worker. I was enraged and sent him a challenge to check the credentials to see what social work program the man had graduated from and in which state he was licensed. I was not surprised that I never heard from Mr. Cooper or anybody else at CNN.

    It seems to me that this sort of blemish comes from the failure of NASW to secure title protection for social workers. While no longer licensed as such, I was once, and for a very long time, a nurse. Nursing managed to secure title protection decades ago, and along with it better pay and benefits.
    States have laws which they ignore. They have requirements for securing undergraduate and graduate degrees but when it come to hiring somebody to work in child protective services, they may not use the same standard.

    If social workers ever expect to have a better image they had better push for laws that will prohibit banjo players from taking social work positions and calling themselves social workers. As it is right now, even a murderer can call himself a social worker.

  28. Melissa I agree with you, people define themselves as SOCIAL WORKER too loosely. We would not call someone a lawyer that did not have the training or credentials to be called one. People need to respect our field, our ethical standards, the time and skills we have developed in this field to provide a valuable service to people.

    I am honored and proud to be a part of such a rich, empowering, uplifting, and liberating professions that allows us to be a help source for people in need. Social workers help navigate people through life’s challenges, while they find their own way to strengthen themselves and their families. We look at the whole person, their strengths and how those strengths can help them grow. We are a dynamic group of people that have been afforded the opportunity to work within a profession that has a strong ethical foundation, which allows us to share our gifts with others while working in a profession that we love.

  29. Just thought you might like to know that in Florida, as of July 1, 2008, it is illegal to call yourself a Social Worker unless you have a BSW, MSW or doctorate degree in social work. I believe this is a misdemeanor offense.

  30. The State of Florida has been successful in making it a Criminal Offense to call yourself a Social Worker if you do not have a B.S.W. or M.S.W. degree..

    What can we do as a profession to make this happen in all 50 States?
    We can demand better pay after we first define ourselves.

  31. Agree with all that has been said. Tyne Daly being the one exception the portrayal of social workers in the media is either lacking or totally inadequate. We have to be clinicians and often extend our roles to advocacy. We must know the law at least enough to know when to consult an attorney especially when working with children. We are at present more like mushrooms, with the majority of our existence out of sight, underappreciated yet performing so many important functions in the ecology of society. Financially we are at the bottom of the professions. Because we generally do not seek personal recognition nor do we chase the dollar we get little of either save the occasional thanks from our clients who do let us know what a vitally important part we have played in their lives. Especially now, in these hard economic times, it seems a cruel injustice to see the billionaires get bonuses for failure when we exert maximum effort for so little material reward and have clients who cannot afford to heat their homes or even buy the gas to come to therapy?

  32. I am a Child Protective Services supervisor and I think social workers are not always represented well in the media. We as social workers realize that our profession is a thankless but greatly needed profession. We are charged to help others help themselves. We are compassionate individuals who are always trying to help people in crisis with very limited resources. I belong to a book club and we actually read the book. Based on the book as I have not seen the movie yet, the system as our clients say, failed this family.

  33. I agree with most of what was previously stated. Except, I believe that our profession has vastly underestimated the power of marketing our profession. There must be a reason billions of dollars are spent on marketing, logos, and branding to the public. Our antiquated name “Social Worker” may have described volunteers from the past, but it certainly does not describe our current profession. Why would we expect the public to simply understand the rigorous academic requirements, our important research, and the thousands of hours required for licensure? Even, the MFCC license was changed to MFT because Marriage & Family THERAPIST sounded more professional than Marriage, Family and Child COUNSELOR. There is additional confusion with OUR “LCSW” now, since many MFT’s call themselves LMFT’s. If we are to keep our Social Worker title than we absolutely need Name entitlement to be a priority. I was watching a documentary on Health Care in Hawaii and a 19 year old girl was introduced as the clinic “Social Worker”. My friends were shocked that it required a Masters degree to be a Social Worker! We are naive to believe that our name has no bearing on the VALUE the public places on our important work. Why should a “worker” not be compensated at the $10 to $15 range? Aren’t other “workers” being paid that amount? Be honest, when you think of a “worker” what comes to your mind? A degreed professional or an unskilled/skilled individual? And, please! The so called Norm show demeaned our profession once again, since no writer would ever imagine that the public would find it plausible that a Community service judgement would be in Nursing, Teaching, Law or Medicine!

  34. Our profession suffers from lack of status in society and the media most often portrays social workers as emotional “bleeding hearts”, do-gooders with little objectivity, or inept and incompetent caseworkers. I agree with Lois who wrote that Tyne Daley was one exception, on “Judging Amy”, although her involvement in that show was often over the top. We need to be shown in professional settings where our skills are appropriately demonstrated in a serious relationship with a patient or client, depending on the setting.
    We also need to be compensated according to our licensing and experience, as are lawyers and doctors.Our pay scale is abominable!

  35. Our profession is portrayed in a negative light because society as a whole still has antiquated images of what we do. Today the need for qualified social workers is greater than ever and our profession needs to be more visible to the public. Through education, training, and licensing we have transitioned to become better equipment to meet the needs of a marginalized populace. However it does not matter how enhanced our skills are if our profession remains “hidden” from the public. Having said that, until society learn about and value the services we provide our salaries will remain, as Paula stated, abominable.

  36. Social workers are portrayed poorly in the media. But so are people of color, Christians and other marginalized groups. We can sit back and whine, but let’s do something different. How about social workers getting good movies produced. I have been a social worker for over 20 years and have a private practice. I started a little film company as a creative project to motivate Latino kids to take more seriously their education. It got very good reviews and the project was presented at a state social work conference. Social workers need to research more, be more creative and got off the bench and into the game! The media will change ever so slowly, but if we don’t get involved on some level, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution. If you want to check out the movie, email me at

  37. Brava to the comments by Linda Cox on the implicit deprofessionalism with the very moniker of “social worker.” Agree wholeheartedly.

    As for the overall media portrayal, there are a number of issues that have been mentioned (wish I’d found this dialogue BEFORE there were so many responses) to which I do take exception.

    I’ve always been under the impression that there are two divergent social work archetypes portrayed in the media. Baby-snatchers and bleeding hearts. Neither of which is all that complimentary

    As a social worker, I didn’t find Maxine Grey [“Judging Amy”] to be much more than an archetype of the bleeding hearts ilk. Dressed like a thrift shop Pochantas, I didn’t so much take issue of the way she was portrayed doing her job, as the way she was portrayed as some kind of thrift store Pocohantas out to do the right thing regardless of implication and procedures. But perhaps what bothered me most was the fact that while she was a person of some standing in her community, even that seemed to be more about her reputation as the mother of a judge or the widow of an attorney, or the fiance of a millionaire. Which leads to a message I’ve heard before….if you want to be financially comfortable as a social worker, you have to either be born to inherited money or marry well. Mrs. Grey was a bleeding heart, and her emotional responses too often interfered with good judgment in practice.

    On the other hand, I do recall several episodes of hospital shows [ER comes immediately to mind], where physicians threatened parents with contacting the social worker. In some cases, conspired with patients to keep the social worker out of the case. Very rarely was it a positive.

    Finally, did anyone catch the MSW on CSI last night? I’m curious to hear what your impressions were. I guess I should be grateful that the camera panned twice to ensure that we got her name and “MSW” displayed prominently on her desk. But she was gritty, real, overworked, and maybe a bit burned out. It was merely a glimpse, but it was an accurate portrayal of far too many of my lunch hours as a social worker in public service: sandwich grabbed at a desk, harried, interrupted. And yet, when her expertise was called upon – immediately switched gears to provide information and support.

  38. I agree with AmyBeth after seeing CSI last night. The social worker portrayed had expertise and professionalism and , yes, her harried “lunch hour” at her desk, constantly interrupted, was very real. However I didn’t like her sarcasm and stereotyping of his profession, just as she didn’t like what she assumed was his stereotyping of social workers. But she was certainly on the money when it came to the public’s image of social workers.
    What I would like to see in the media is a clinical social worker in real relationships with people suffering from loss, trauma, bigotry, shame, rage, family tragedies, and other life issues that only social workers face on a daily basis, and actually help to relieve suffering, despite overly large caseloads, a mess of paper work in a bureaucratic setting with pressure to bring in the bucks and see as many clients as possible. This is what many of us face in our profession and get little recognition.What preserves our motivation and enables us to persevere is the work itself with our clients. They are the reward for the work we do. The public needs to learn this.

  39. Wow! Melissa took the exact example I use when making my point to people who “don’t get it,” meaning what we do and who we are. I have yet to see “Precious” and I have high hopes. I am attempting to suspend my pre-conceived notions since Oprah is involved with the production. Many years ago I watched Oprah and a Chicago columnist whose name now escapes me, constantly refer to our profession on her show negatively when, in actuality, she and the columnist were referring to DCFS case workers, who were not, at the time – necessarily Social Workers. I don’t need to go into the comparisons here as I am sure the readers of this site get where I am coming from.

    I was offended to the point that I sent an email inviting Oprah to take the time to have her people research our profession before attempting to put us on blast for doing a poor job and invite someone from our profession on as a guest. That was the first time I suggested what Melissa stated in her posting, you’d never refer to a PA as an M.D., etc. I also phoned NASW and spoke with the then President asking that some formal objection be sent to both Harpo and the Chicago Sun-Times and possibly an invitation to engage in dialogue to assist in educating those in the media who are misinformed about our profession. That was many years ago and it seems that we still have much work to do to educate the media and the public at large. (Of course I never received a response from Harpo Productions.)

    I am excited to see that NASW has launched this site and I am hopeful that we will continue to join together in one voice to correct the misconception that the media and, truthfully, many of our family, friends and colleagues in other professions have of us. Count me in!

  40. I believe it’s up to the media to help the LGBT community. We need to show the world that being gay is okay and one way to do this is to make more commercials with loving gay couples. For example, a car commercial could show a gay couple purchasing a car together. Many shows such as Renovation Realities, Dog Whisperer, and more portray true gay couples and this is the start that society needs so we can engage each generation to accept and understand that gays are a major part of our communities and need to be considered with respect and acceptance while embracing them into our culture every where we go. Thanks!

  41. We are further hindered by case workers who go around calling themselves Social Workers. This gives both the public and the media reason put us in the same category. I continue to try and educate my co-workers but it is an ongoing situation. You can’t call yourself a principal if you arent one, a guidance counselor if you arent one, or a school pyschologist if you arent one. I would like to see the same restriction put on our profession.

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