Social workers often incorrectly identified in media

Nov 21, 2012

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

As a former freelance journalist, Anita Doberman said she rarely read or heard the term social work used in a positive light.

Anita Doberman

Journalist colleagues never brought to her attention that there could be a difference between a social worker and a government employee, she said.

“It was never on the radar,” Doberman said. “Most people do know that psychologists and doctors have certain degrees. That is the assumption.”

Doberman is now working toward a master’s degree in social work, and serves on the NASW national board of directors as its MSW student member. She offered her insight as a media consumer and a journalist as NASW and its chapters work on a media education campaign.

The effort is to alert the media about the need to correctly discern professional social workers in their coverage. Social work leaders have said the profession suffers as a whole when the media misreports a person charged with misbehavior as a social worker.

Doberman said being proactive by educating the media about correctly identifying social workers is a good idea. Repeated misuse of the term turns into a pattern that is even more difficult for reporters and editors to break, she said.

By asking the media to be accountable, it helps the public understand that social workers are trained professionals.

“Having title protection protects the profession and the public,” Doberman said.

One way to aid the media education campaign is to address the issue with editors of professional journalist style and reference guides.

The most widely used guide is The Associated Press Stylebook. Newspapers, broadcasters, magazines and public relations firms use the book as a standardized means for communication, and it is considered the newspaper industry standard.

Unfortunately, the stylebook lacks consistency in its use of identifying professional occupations. For example, it does not include an entry for social workers, but it does clarify the use of “Dr.” before a person’s name. It states that such a person holds a medical degree in a certain discipline.  It also contains a style entry for “attorney” and “Realtor.”

AP Stylebook editor David Minthorn would not say why certain occupations deserve an entry in the book while others are not listed. He did say the AP considers social worker to be a job description. He noted that if a “social worker’s specialty or academics are relevant, the degrees, schools and specialized training or experience would be described in a story.”

On the positive side, the AP Stylebook accepts suggestions from anyone for its 2013 updated edition.

Visitors to, can click on the “Suggestions for 2013” link on the main page. It states that the editors will consider all submissions when putting together the new edition.

Media Education

The following are five ways social workers can help the campaign.

  • Submit a request to the Associated Press to add a description of a social worker to the AP Stylebook.
  • Post examples of media misrepresentations of the social work profession on
  • Send an email to if you would like to be interviewed locally on a hot topic.
  • Leave comments on news websites and in social media. Suggest stories or correct misinformation.
  • Always say you are a professional social worker when interviewed by the media.

From the November 2012 NASW News.