1. Mason, Diana J. PhD, RN, FAAN, AJN Editor-in-Chief

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"Scumbag" was what the letter writer called me and others who would raise questions about the consequences of privatizing Social Security, as I did in my April editorial. I am used to having readers disagree, sometimes passionately, with my opinions, and I particularly appreciate those who mount a strong, reasoned counterargument. But I found no reason in this letter's argument. The 600-word e-mail labeled "people like" me in a variety of ways ("blowhards," "bat guano") and blasted anyone who questioned the current administration's proposals as "liberal loonies" and "idiots." My primary response was embarrassment at this fellow nurse's inability to express herself in a clear way on such an important issue.


In recent months, I have been struck by the vitriol with which some letter writers attack me or authors personally. Why are these readers so angry? Is it the stress of nursing? Is it a lack of education in critical thinking and debate? Has e-mail allowed people to spout off in ways they might not otherwise? Is it a manifestation of a societal trend toward inflammatory rhetoric in "entertainment news" and political advertisements?

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It's probably all of these, but I'm increasingly concerned about the last factor. I no longer watch the so-called news programs that pit one political extreme against another in a show of assaultive, cacophonous one-upmanship. This approach to debate is compromising civic journalism, including nursing journalism.


Civic journalism is journalism that involves the public in a dialogue on current affairs. In a 2004 speech before the Brazilian Newspaper Congress, Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, said, "The goal [of civic journalism] is to produce news that citizens need to be educated about issues and current events, to make civic decisions, to engage in civic dialogue and action-and generally to exercise their responsibilities in a democracy" (see It assumes that members of the public must grapple with the complex issues facing our society if democracy is to thrive. An uninvolved, uninformed public undermines democracy, leaving public policy decisions to those trained in manipulating public attitudes. James Fallows's 1997 book, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, points out that most journalists are not experts in the subjects they cover, and they often confine their reporting to the politics of an issue rather than the details of the issue itself.


When nurses resort to personal attacks, we all lose something.


Journalists therefore tend to focus on the political context of the Social Security debate, for example, rather than the details of the problem and the policy options. When this happens, the public is deprived of the information it needs to analyze the pros and cons of a position. Opinions are more likely to be formed on the basis of advertising and sound bites.


When nurses resort to personal attacks rather than delineating arguments, we all somehow lose something. And I fear that what nurses lose is credibility. If nurses can't articulate their positions civilly and reasonably, why should others want nurses at the decision-making tables in government or on the job? Issues that come to mind are unionization, patient safety, remedies for ensuring adequate nurse staffing, ensuring an adequate supply of faculty, the rising cost of health care, and the future of Medicaid and Medicare. Nurses' ability to cogently debate these and other important issues will determine whether nursing thrives or becomes extinct.


If you're taking the time to write about what you've read in AJN, why not aim to have your opinions shared with readers? And why not engage in the civic dialogue that nursing and our society need if we're to develop thoughtful, creative solutions to the problems challenging us every day?