How the media fuels negative views about older people and ageing
Newspaper headlines everyday reinforce ageist stereotypes that ultimately impact how older people are treated by society.
Our Chief Executive, Carole Easton, explains why the Centre for Ageing Better wants age to be added to the Editors’ Code of Practice.
In my role, I meet amazing people doing great work to make their communities and services more age friendly, ensuring older people are not being actively discriminated against or left out of major decisions that could affect their lives.
However, I would challenge anyone, no matter how well intentioned, who says that they do not hold ageist attitudes. The negative associations with older age and ageing are so pervasive that it's impossible to completely avoid internalising these views. This then influences how we think about ourselves, now and in the future, and about older people.
Where do these views come from? The answer to this is complex but there is no doubt that media plays a huge role in influencing us and our views of ageing.
If you look at newspaper coverage and how it talks about age, sadly there is much that raises the issue in dubious and unhelpful ways and which implicitly or explicitly reinforces limited assumptions and negative portrayals of older people.
Many articles use people’s ages even when it is irrelevant to the content and purpose of a story, for example: Carol McGiffin, 62, dazzles in a sequinned biker jacket with her husband Mark Cassidy, 40, as they join Linda Robson at Best Heroes Award.
Why has age been included in this story? Is it done to evoke ageist assumptions about people’s looks and relationships which the journalist does not want to articulate? What does telling us their age add to what we want or need to know about them?
Paradoxically, the focus on age, rather than on what people have achieved or their skills and knowledge, has the effect of over-emphasising the relevance of age. In the workplace, in the receipt of services and in so many other ways, this can lead to outright discrimination.
A poll by AARP suggested that as many as 78% of older workers either witnessed or experienced age discrimination while at work. Another way the media stokes ageist attitudes is through the numerous articles and celebrations of people who manage to conceal their true age and maintain “youthful” beauty. This is aimed more at women (though not exclusively) as in this article with the headline: "AGELESS BEAUTY I’m 72 but look 20 years younger – people are stunned when they find out my real age but here’s my secrets."
Why do we assume that it is negative to look old? This is a deeply ingrained view. Are we colluding with the cosmetics industry or is it that we have defined beauty so narrowly as to only include anyone under the age of 35? Why are wrinkles seen as ugly blemishes to be removed rather than a sign of experience and wisdom? Why is it an achievement to have persuaded someone that you're 20 years younger than you really are – particularly when this only relates to appearance rather than something you might be doing or have achieved?
The media undoubtedly reflects and affects our views. It has both the power to encourage and reinforce existing stereotypes
There are numerous other ways in which ageism is reinforced unwittingly in the media. The association of words such as “elderly” with “vulnerable” or phrases such as “boomers have it better than millennials” all create a negative and unrealistic view of later life. These stereotypes imply homogeneity amongst older people, disregarding the diverse and unequal experiences we have of later life. It is widely recognised as unacceptable to describe women or Disabled people as homogenous. It must become unacceptable to describe older people in this way too.
Ageing Better is hopeful that IPSO, the independent body that regulates most of the UK’s newspapers and magazines, will add age to Clause 12 of its Editors Code of Practice, which focuses on avoiding discrimination. This would prohibit the press from making prejudicial or pejorative references to an individual’s age or from giving details of an individual’s age when it is irrelevant to the story. Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story and cannot be mentioned in a pejorative or prejudicial manner. These standards must be applied to age too.
The media undoubtedly reflects and affects our views. It has both the power to encourage and reinforce existing stereotypes and the potential to provide evidence and narratives that demonstrate the diversity and reality of individual lives across the age range.
With a little encouragement from IPSO, the media could help shift the views we all hold and make us more positive about ageing.