Style guide encourages accurate coverage of aging

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The International Longevity Center – USA and Aging Services of California have teamed up to create “Media Takes: On Aging” (56-page PDF), a “Styleguide for Journalism, Entertainment and Advertising.”

The guide provides basic statistics and information as well as primers on elder abuse, age discrimination in the media, covering the “age beat,” and the under representation and mockery of the aged in entertainment media. The guide’s writers warn against specific stereotypes and certain ageist terminology such as “crotchety old man,” “old goat,” “senile old fool,” “sweet old lady,” “ancient” and “one foot in the grave.”

The primer lays out the authors’ version of an accurate portrait of aging in America as a guideline.

  • Eighty percent of older Americans are healthy enough to engage in normal activities.
  • Sixty four percent of Americans age 65 and older report no limitation in major activities.
  • Only 20 percent of Americans age 65 and older report that they need assistance with basic daily activities.
  • Rates of disability are continuing to decline for persons 65 and older.
  • Many older persons have an interest in sex and continue to engage in sexual activity, which plays an important role in their lives and, in fact, may be more satisfying after age 60.
  • Studies have also shown that people who continue to learn and regularly exercise are more likely to maintain cognitive abilities than those who do not.

According to the primer, negative media coverage can have a deleterious effect on the health of the elderly. The authors thus urge reporters to be careful when portraying the aged.

Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, who studies the health effects of such messages on elderly people, found that little insults can lead to more negative images of aging and, in fact, even worsen functional health over time. Levy’s seminal long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002, found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer– a bigger increase than that associated with exercising or not smoking.

The report also includes specific requests for journalists to follow, and should help journalists tackling stories on the “age beat” to ask themselves the right questions and be aware of specific issues affecting the country’s aging population.

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