Experts sound off on portrayal of legal, medical professions on televisionMillions of people tune in to their favorite television shows on a regular basis, some of which, like 'House' and 'Law and Order‚' provide diverse insights into a variety of professional environments. But just how accurate are these shows' representations of careers?
Many real-world professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, claim that TV shows often distort and misrepresent the day-to-day experiences of these careers.
Dennis Abraham, a cardiologist at Duke Hospital, noted that though logistical practices, such as rounds, "on-call," and sign out are often portrayed accurately, the dramatization of interpersonal relationships is quite exaggerated.
"Many of the interactions amongst residents and with attending physicians are far more dramatized. I have rarely seen romantic and deeply personal interactions between attending physicians and trainees, however these seem to be quite standard in shows," Abraham wrote in an email Monday.
Abraham added that physicians see patients far fewer times than is portrayed in television.
“Often interactions between a physician and patient or the investigation of a disease (a la House) can take up the whole of a show," Abraham said. “Unfortunately, the actual time physically interacting with a patient or being involved in the work-up is often quite limited.”
But medical TV shows aren’t the only ones to reflect inaccuracies. Charles Dunlap, the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, noted that shows often take liberties with their representation of legal ethics.
“Perhaps the most inaccurate aspect I see on TV shows is the suggestion that most lawyers play fast and loose with ethics rules, which they don’t," Dunlap wrote in an email Oct 23.
But Dunlap added that the TV series can have a beneficial effect on the profession's reputation.
“Despite their deficiencies, I think that TV series featuring lawyers are, on balance, a good thing for the profession so long as everyone remembers that they are, after all, intended to be entertainment and not documentaries," Dunlap said.
James Coleman, John S. Bradway Professor of Law, noted that television often glamorizes individual lawyers and big city law firms.
“TV programs like 'Suits' portray lawyers at large law firms as hard charging, hard drinking and sexually always on the make,” Coleman said. “Only the first part is generally true; the rest is...fiction, at least for most law firm lawyers. They don't have time for drinking or sex—certainly not in the office.”
Coleman added that these television shows feature young lawyers in high-level positions, which would not actually happen in a real workplace.
“Equally implausible, young lawyers in big firms are not doing glamorous work and certainly are not appearing in court. They work very long hours in the background. Their contributions often are valuable, but rarely the key factor in a good outcome," Coleman said.
Coleman said the criminal justice system is often more fairly portrayed, but still does not reflect the volume of cases police, prosecutors and defense lawyers need to juggle and, instead, dramatizes them.
"Some cases are solved quickly, but not because of clever police work. Criminal trials are rare. Any case as clear-cut as the ones portrayed on television would end in a plea agreement, not a trial," Coleman said.
Professor of the practice of law Donald Beskind said the greatest injustice TV does to the legal career is by deemphasizing its professionalism.
"Television portrays lawyers as primarily interested in their own advancement, in winning, and in their current romantic interest," he said. "Real professionals work long hours with great focus on serving their clients within the ethical rules of the profession.
In addition, Beskind noted that many of the motions and objections made in TV trials and the questions asked by TV lawyers would never be allowed in court. In fact, a lawyer might even be called out by a judge in front of the jury for asking them.
But Stephen Craig, William T. Miller professor of chemistry, said that perhaps TV shows actually downplay the personalities of leaders in these careers.
"I am...confident that 'real world' chemists are much wittier, more charismatic, and lead far more complex and exciting lives than what you see on a TV show," Craig wrote in an email Wednesday.