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The News Media and Aging: Reports from the Field

Jeanette Leardi December 2, 2019
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How well does the media cover longevity issues—and how can it improve?

Pro-aging advocates might give the media less-than-stellar reviews on how it covers aging issues. From the numerous ageist (and sexist) “granny” headlines in stories about older women that have nothing to do with grandparenting, to the use of wrinkled-hands stock photos, to the recent coverage of candidate age in the 2020 Presidential election—the news media has shown it is susceptible to many of the same ageist mistakes we see in other areas of culture.

In 2009, the report “Media Takes: On Aging” found that “newspapers only cover issues of interest to older adults when such topics are in the spotlight in Congress or during election campaigns…” Ten years later, have news outlets’ coverage improved at all?

Significant Changes in Coverage, But We’re Not There Yet

“I think the media are getting better at it,” reports independent health journalist (and Stria contributor) Liz Seegert. “I’m seeing more stories about aging issues in a wider array of media, as well as some efforts to devote more resources to aging-specific columns/sections.”

She also notes the importance of investigative reporting into corruption, fraud, elder abuse and neglect. “Much of this would never come to light without investigative journalists, and many stories have actually resulted in tough actions—new legislation, arrests and facility closures, for example. Journalism has to play a watchdog role and it’s a role no other media type can take on.”

Next Avenue’s managing editor and Money and Work editor Richard Eisenberg cites another improvement in the news media’s coverage: better journalists. “Some reporters who’ve been writing about aging issues are getting better at it through more experience and developing sources.”

Paula Span, who writes The New Old Age column for The New York Times and teaches journalism at Columbia University, also sees a change in journalists’ approach. “Reporters are taking a broader view of what ‘aging issues’ are—not just financial/retirement matters but work, health, caregiving, ageism, sex, friendship, purpose… I also see an openness to the idea that this last quarter of life can be meaningful, a time of exploration and reward, not just something to dread or attempt to defy.”

Despite these advancements, all three journalists see the need for more progress—especially when it comes to ageist myths and stereotypes. According to Seegert, some reporters’ “language, tone, assumptions… only reinforce negative stereotypes, to the point where older adults believe these negative things about themselves, despite strong evidence to the contrary.”

Expert Advice on How the Media Can Improve

So how can and should news media improve coverage of aging issues?

Of course, news stories aren’t assigned, researched, and produced in a vacuum. The newsroom environment itself can affect which stories are covered and how. Newsrooms need to be as diverse as the people they cover, including older reporters (and women and minorities).

Here’s what else the experts advise:

Seegert: “Don’t lump all older people into one big group. Understand different stages of aging, the up and downsides and that most are not on the extreme ends….Most older people are happy, reasonably healthy, and cognitively intact. Don’t feed the myth.

“Get out and meet some older people—attend a conference on aging, visit a senior center, talk to neighbors. Ask them what day-to-day life is really like. Get a bigger picture of aging, and delve into the details, too…”

Eisenberg: “Assign reporters to cover aging issues. Provide news media with quantifiable and qualitative information showing that readers, viewers, and listeners want and consume stories about aging issues.

“Offer awards and competitions for the best coverage of aging issues. Reporters and editors, like everyone else, like to be acknowledged for their good work. And when media outlets see fine coverage of aging issues, they will want to emulate it.”

Span: “There’s an astonishing amount of data collected about older Americans—our health, finances, living arrangements, opinions, and practices. We should make use of it.

“Also: What has made reporting on aging easier for me? Facebook. Elders and their families are on it, are interested in aging issues and willing to participate in reporting. And Twitter is helpful for keeping up with what researchers, health care experts and others interested in aging (including just about every journalist I know) are up to.” 

It’s certain that news covering aging issues will only increase. As journalists become more aware of and committed to disrupting bias against age, that growth will result in more accurate and expansive reporting.

That would be good news, indeed.

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Jeanette Leardi

Jeanette Leardi is a social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator specializing in aging issues. Her passion for older adult empowerment has led her to anti-ageism activism. Find her work at www.jeanetteleardi.com.

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