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.