This study uses a Foucauldian discourse analysis to explore media reporting on the role of nurses as being consistently positioned 'heroes' during COVID-19. In so doing, it highlights multiple intersecting discourses at play, with the caring discourse acting as a central one in negatively impacting nurses' ability to advocate for safe working conditions during a public health emergency. Drawing on media reports during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada in the spring of 2020 and on historical information from SARS, this study seeks to establish caring as a discourse and examine if the caring discourse impedes nurses' ability to protect themselves from harm. The results of this analysis explicate how public media discourses that position nurses as caring, sacrificial and heroic may have impacted their ability to maintain their personal safety as a result of the expectations put upon the nursing profession. © 2021 The Authors. Nursing Inquiry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.