Abstract: (WITHDRAWN) Portraits of Social Work As Essential Work: A Critical Discourse Analysis (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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756P (WITHDRAWN) Portraits of Social Work As Essential Work: A Critical Discourse Analysis

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Margaret Mary Downey, MSW, Doctoral student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Background: The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis forces questions about what constitutes “essential” labor. Those engaged in necessary services and infrastructure support who cannot perform their duties remotely are called to the frontlines of a pandemic. These workers face a greater level of physical risk, stress, and burnout than their non-essential counterparts. Many social workers are considered “essential,” delivering critical personal, interpersonal, and community services. The present study asks: How are social workers portrayed as essential in journalistic sources during a key period in the COVID-19 crisis? Previous literature demonstrates that media accounts of social workers can influence public opinion, support, and funding for social work services. Media accounts may influence the acceptability of social work services on the part of clients. By examining social work as essential work, this study aims to identify interventions for scholars, educators, policymakers, and practitioners to advance social work knowledge, particularly during times of public upheaval.

Methods: We utilized a qualitative content analysis of 60 articles published in the online editions of the five most-circulated US newspapers. Relevant articles were identified in the Nexis database. The search string identified articles that contain at least one mention of “essential OR essential work” and “social work OR social worker.” We selected the period between March 19th the first state issued a “shelter-in-place” order, and April 30th, 2020, when areas began to lift similar orders. Articles were excluded if they did not focus on essential social work, or if they were not in the news, feature, or editorial formats. Initial searches identified 60 articles; 55 met inclusion criteria. Data were screened for relevance to the study themes and analyzed using critical discourse analysis (CDA); which examines the relationship between language, social practices (such as what constitutes essential work), and power (Fairclough, 2015). Texts were coded thematically in Atlas.ti using an iterative, abductive approach.

Findings: The majority of articles (n =55) were standard news format (n=40), 13 were features and 2 were editorials. Most of the depictions of essential social workers were of healthcare social workers in hospital settings. Additionally, all articles that mention healthcare social workers focused on physicians and nurses. Findings suggest that social workers are considered a vital but secondary part of the essential workforce. Additionally, these findings point to the continuation of potentially problematic stereotypes associated with the profession, such as selflessness and receiving low salaries or being underpaid.

Conclusion: Findings highlight social work’s identity as a profession that is defined in major media by its support of allied professions. Moreover, analysis reveals how stereotypes about social work continue in journalist coverage of essential work during COVID-19. By normalizing social workers as selfless and exploited, these narratives may impede efforts to improve recognition, compensation, and public engagement with the profession. Social workers should consider adding media literacy to their training, curricula, and professional development to improve social workers’ abilities to combat damaging portrayals of the profession, advance social work’s knowledge-base, and promote social work science.