Newsweek on bullying and related behaviors

Over a two week span, Newsweek has been both on and off target when it comes to coverage of bullying and related behaviors.

Mistakes in health care

Last week, Newsweek‘s Claudia Kalb wrote an informative piece (link here) about how medical errors can be prevented, identifying hierarchy and intimidation in healthcare as part of the problem:

Undoing a culture is hard, especially one steeped in hierarchy and intimidation, where doctors tend to reign supreme and nurses, pharmacists, and technicians fall into the ranks below. “What underlies it is arrogance,” says [Peter] Pronovost, an anesthesiologist and director of Hopkins’s Quality and Safety Research Group.

Kalb referenced a report by Dr. Lucian Leap, a patient safety expert, recommending that med students be taught about how to work with others:

Earlier this year, Leape published a report saying med schools are failing to teach future physicians the most urgent lessons about why mistakes happen and how to prevent them. The report calls on schools to teach patient safety as a basic science, to train students to work in teams with nurses and pharmacists, and to have “zero tolerance” for disrespectful or abusive behavior, which can lead to mistakes.

Leap’s recommendations dovetail with standards issued by the Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs.  In 2008, the Joint Commission issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care. (For an earlier post on the Joint Commission standard, go here.)

Phoebe Prince case

One of Newsweek‘s feature stories this week delves into the suicide of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teenager who took her own life after being bullied by her classmates. (I’ve written a lot on this tragedy — go here for links.) In her article, Jessica Barnett suggests that we now may be overreacting to the specter of bullying behaviors (link here):

The reality may be that while the incidence of bullying has remained relatively the same, it’s our reaction to it that’s changed: the helicopter parents who want to protect their kids from every stick and stone, the cable-news commentators who whip them into a frenzy, the insta-vigilantism of the Internet. When it comes down to it, bullying is not just a social ill; it’s a “cottage industry,” says Suffolk Law School’s David Yamada—complete with commentators and prevention experts and a new breed of legal scholars, all preparing to take on an enemy that’s always been there. None of this is to say that bullying is not a serious problem (it is), or that tackling it is not important. But like a stereo with the volume turned too high, all the noise distorts the facts, making it nearly impossible to judge when a case is somehow criminal, or merely cruel.

Barnett weighed in with an earlier piece referencing suicides of gay teens and college students, posing the question of whether the “bullying epidemic” is a “media myth” (link here).

Okay, I confess I excerpted the paragraph above in part because I’m unhappy over how Newsweek utilized my interview, taking one comment I made to a reporter to insinuate that I’m critical of how much attention bullying is starting to receive. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I agree that the coverage of deaths associated with bullying sometimes has been sensationalistic, I see it as the inevitable result of the media’s belated discovery of behaviors that have been ignored for too long.

Folks, we’re now talking about the suicides of young people here. This is not — as Barnett suggests — a matter of helicopter parents being overprotective or of kids simply being too thin skinned! In any event, Newsweek lops together virtually anyone who is raising awareness of bullying — “commentators,” “prevention experts,” and “legal scholars” (umm, I guess that’s me) — in assigning blame for turning the volume too high and distorting the facts.

Indeed, Newsweek itself is guilty of jumping on a trend. After ignoring these destructive behaviors for so long, it now is doing the easy thing by criticizing the emerging coverage and attention. In doing so, it is merely reacting and responding to the news, rather than taking a lead role in shaping our understanding of bullying and its consequences.


Addendum — Newsweek also has posted a short piece, “The Booming Anti-Bullying Industry,” link here. It’s the 3rd piece in which they invoked my “cottage industry” line to buttress their skepticism.

5 responses

  1. The same “over reaction” was said 37 years ago when I was a sweet, young 21 year-old student teacher of high school English. Instead of my 52 year-old cooperating teacher instructing me on teaching skills, he taught me how to run around his desk after school and skirm to get his hand of my knee. Eventually, he tried to kiss me. ICH!

    I would drive home after school, fearful that I couldn’t push in the clutch with my legs still locked together. I would cry evenings, wondering how to pay my college loans with no teaching career to fall pack on if I reported him.

    It was not until I learned he had done the same to a younger women a few years later that I started to recover. How? I picked up the phone and described to his principal that Mr. Phipps was a masher with no business being around young women.

    Only when we break the silence about abuses will they ever learn. Same goes for bullying! SHOUT ABOUT IT!

  2. Having worked in the medical field, I agree the Zero Tolerance policy needs to be more strictly enforced by hospital administrators.

    Ironically,the policy never made much limelight in the newsletters sent out in hospitals, while any other major policy by Joint Commission is highly made known to staff. Little wonder why an issue of abuse of power and bullying continues throughout health care despite initiation of the policy in 2008.

    Physicians and surgeons need to move out of the old school and realize health care is about teamwork. Having a superior, condescending, bullying attitude only impairs said teamwork. Long are the days of nurses and other ancillary staff accepting the role of “Handmaidens to the Gods”.

    What every industry needs to emphasize is the good old fashion “Golden Rule”. I was recently reminded of this simple, yet vital act. If followed, many of our work environments would be much more tolerable and enjoyable.

    Ms. Barnette can babble all she wants regarding bullying being an exaggerated issue. Until you walk in the shoes of another (such as a target) can you truly understand and be empathetic to the issue.

    May you never have to walk in those shoes, Ms.Barnette.

  3. There shouldn’t be any bullying, period.

    The concern shouldn’t be whether there’s a developing cottage industry to respond to bullying or if parents, wanting better experiences for their children, are raising hypersensitive children. That sounds like the hysterical response to heightening awareness of gay rights and global warming activism years earlier.

    The concern should be why is bullying being permitted at all? Why is it not being discouraged? Articles should focus on what happens when children are raised to respect each other and others; what happens to performance in work places when employers facilitate collaborative environments over competitive environments; what is the economic and social effect of bullying, and what methods of remedying bullying or creating such environments are working.

    It’s not just a handful of people who are victimized by bullying. It is our entire society – whether through the development of criminals or deviant psychopaths, or underachieving geniuses who never realize their potential, thereby limiting our community’s potential – that suffers.

    And, I’m not sure where Ms. Barnett gets her numbers from, but, I’m sure there are many who can point her in the direction of business leaders who recognize and acknowledge a growing incidence of bullying and other forms of severe anti-social behavior within the workplace. It’s costing businesses money.

  4. I’ve worked in direct care in hospitals for 15 years. The magnitude of bullying I’ve directly encountered and bullying is downright shocking, disgusting, traumatic, frightening, and damaging to the safety of anyone who’s ever been a patient!!!

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