By Jack Cumming

At one time, journalists were admonished to remain detached and objective in their reporting. The approach was to report with unbiased language answers to “who, what, when, where, why, and how.” That’s changed, and now senior living is in the journalistic sights as reporters seek dramatic targets for their reportorial word-weapons.

Bashing Senior Living

A recent example aired on the CBS Mornings show and on CBS Evening News With Norah O’Donnell. Though it was a report on a skilled nursing facility, SNFs are often conflated in popular thinking with the entire eldercare industry. Here’s my sense of the report, looking at it from the perspectives of knowledgeable residents, providers, and caregivers who are immersed in senior living.

  1. The impetus for the “investigation” was the experience of the journalist’s mother-in-law at a particular senior living residence, Berkley East Healthcare Center in Santa Monica, CA. The mother-in-law may have been unhappy because she didn’t want to feel old or because the staff responses did not meet her expectations, but the blame went to for-profit ownership.
  2. The complaint was the usual: understaffing and lack of staff responsiveness. Cited was a nursing aide who said she couldn’t help a resident because she was required to go on lunch break. CBS presented that as unreasonable, but California law requires that workers take their breaks when scheduled, and care homes are subject to high liability lawsuits if the workers don’t comply.
  3. Berkley East was sold to Aspen Healthcare in 2019. The reporter characterizes Aspen as “for profit,” as though that were ipso facto a disgrace. All enterprises have to have income sufficient to cover costs — i.e., profit — even if the income comes from donors and customers instead of from investors and customers.
  4. There is no evidence in the CBS “investigative report” that Berkley East did not comply with mandated staffing ratios or that it denied its employees their breaks in consequence. The implication is that because the mother-in-law decried her circumstances, complaining, “How did I get to be so so helpless?” that the facility direction, operation, and ownership was unconscionable and unscrupulous.

Why Biased Reporting

What are we to make of the unfairness of much of the reporting by which some with access to the media perhaps act out their own personal fears of growing old and helpless as life’s end approaches? Here are some thoughts, though, to try to fill that gap.

  1. The Tom Wolfe school of journalism that countenances reportorial bias in the purportedly unbiased news aspects of journalism has demeaned journalism as a profession and ought to be reversed, at least for the mainstream, most credible journalistic outlets.
  2. For senior living in general and skilled nursing in particular, it seems as though the staffing requirements are set by law arbitrarily as a ratio instead of relating staffing to the needs of the residents. It also seems like workers’ responsiveness is likewise limited by law, so workers must go on breaks when scheduled and not when it is opportune to meet the needs of the residents.
  3. Such requirements are not only arbitrary and perhaps self-serving to ulterior special interest groups, but they also put a chill on advances such as augmented intelligence, medication dispensing equipment, and much more that might improve the quality of eldercare while reducing staffing numbers and error rates.
  4. Both nonprofits and for-profits seek profitability and are forced by ill-considered, though well-intentioned, laws, to focus more on legal compliance and avoidance of plaintiffs’ bar lawsuit liabilities than on the reasonable needs of residents.
  5. It is easier, if sloppy, for investigative reporters, especially with TV’s appeal to emotions, to present the dramatic stories of the disgruntled than to provide a deeper analysis of the specifics of a particular enterprise or facility.
  6. Just as negative campaigning has driven many potentially talented people out of politics, so negative reporting and biased journalism have driven many responsible enterprises out of the eldercare industry. That leaves the field to those who don’t care, but who are willing to ruthlessly exploit the helpless and hapless for personal gain.

What’s to Be Done

It seems self-evident that the onus is on the trade associations, primary among which is LeadingAge, to defend the bona fides of the industry. The direct approach might be to sue an outlet like CBS for having slandered Berkley East, assuming that in truth Berkley East has an impeccably compliant record. We hope that’s true, though that would have to be confirmed. It’s best that only the truly righteous bring lawsuits alleging defamation.

A better approach, though, would be for the industry, through its trade associations — ideally with the trade associations working together — to tell the positive story. Such positive stories would have more credibility if they were accompanied by a proactive campaign — accreditation and legislation — to raise industry standards and to restrain the bad actors.

The prototype for such a constructive campaign of storytelling is the series Stories of the Sharp Experience. In it, heartwarming stories are told of lives saved and enriched through the health care interventions at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego. A series of videos was created, which was then edited and repurposed for shorter segments and commercial airings. The longer videos aired as infomercials. The series was very effective.