Age is a big deal — especially for journalists covering the health of officeholders and candidates in the upcoming 2024 election. Age bias has been blatantly obvious throughout recent media coverage of both President Joe Biden, as well as for several older senators like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), according to longevity researcher S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D.
Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and research associate at the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging, spoke to AHCJ members alongside veteran D.C.-based health reporter Joanne Kenen during a recent webinar on age bias.
Olshansky stated that reporters often default to ageist stereotypes and language. And despite vast differences in mental and cognitive health of those over 65, many of us, (including journalists), often lump all older people together into a homogenous group.
It’s certainly legitimate to discuss a candidate’s age as one component of their fitness for office, but it shouldn’t be the only one. The health of officeholders, candidates and other public figures are often newsworthy, whether it’s McConnell’s recent on-camera incidents or Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-PA) stroke or battle with depression. But how we frame these issues and the language we use matters. Even those of us who cover the age beat full time can fall into easy language traps.
Removing and rephrasing ageist language
Negative stereotypes of older adults can lead to “othering,” bias, and poorer outcomes, according to Yale psychologist and aging researcher Becca Levy. Her book, “Breaking the Age Code”, shows strong connections between positive attitudes about aging and longevity.
Combating ageism is part of a bigger movement to stop dividing ourselves into “us” and “them,” resulting in stereotyping and discrimination, according to Changing the Narrative, a campaign from the NextFifty Initiative, a private, foundation-based effort focused on older adults and caregivers.
Here are 10 ideas for removing or rephrasing ageist language and bias from your stories:
- Avoid terms like “seniors,” “ elderly,” “the aged,” “aging dependents,” “old-old,” “young-old,” and similar “other-ing” terms, which connote a stereotype.
- Preferred language includes “older persons,” “older people,” “older adults,” “older patients,” “older people,” “people 65 years and older,” or “the older population.” “Older adults” is less likely to connote discrimination and negative stereotypes when describing anyone 65 and older, The American Medical Association manual of style recommends.
- For human studies, use specific ages such as “people 75-84”, or “children under 12”.
- The American Psychological Association suggests to “be specific in providing age ranges, means and medians. Avoid open-ended definitions such as ‘under 18 years’ or ‘over 65 years,’ unless referring, for example, to broad research study eligibility criteria.”
- Use specific numbers when describing a group of older adults when possible, like “people over 70” rather than “older people”, said Paula Froke, lead editor of the AP Stylebook, who updated members of the ACES: the Society for Editing, about ageist language in this video.
- Treat aging as a normal human process.
- Avoid using fatalistic or negative phrases about the aging population like “silver tsunami.” Instead, try something like “growth of the aging population” recommends the Harvey A. Friedman Center on Aging.
- When speaking with older people, don’t offer back-handed compliments.
- Phrases like “you look great for (insert age here) or any comment that assumes all people of a certain age are frail, cognitively deficient, sick, or incapable, should be off limits, according to the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.
- For example, “Wow. Joe Biden still rides a bike at 80!” assumes most 80 year-olds are incapable of this activity. Some are. Many are not.
- Be mindful of “compassionate ageism,” a well-intentioned but paternalistic approach in which all older people are portrayed as vulnerable, needy and requiring protection.
- Avoid using “still,” in front of a verb, as in “still working,” which suggests that doing so is remarkable, when millions of older adults want to and/or need to work.
- Think about how your sentence (or story) might sound if you substituted an ethnic/minority/religious/gendered term for “older adult.” If it wouldn’t be acceptable in those circumstances, it’s not acceptable when reporting on the older population either.
- Steer clear of trite, stereotypical or negative images of aging when choosing photos or graphics. Changing the Narrative recommends several sources for more inspiring photos of older people:
It’s hard to find correct terminology for people in general, and often for older people specifically, writes Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic. And when, exactly, does “old” begin?
Making a conscious effort to avoid ageist language and becoming more aware of internalized age bias in your reporting will help you avoid that particular quagmire. The language we use and how we tell our stories can make a difference in reducing ageism.
- The Yo, is this ageist blog, from ageism activist and author Ashton Applewhite.
- More examples of ageist language from dictionary.com. Note the section on medical language.
- A glossary of ageist and demeaning terms from AARP
- The Language of Ageism: Why We Need to Use Words Carefully, by ageism researcher and author Tracey Gendron, Ph.D. (Read my 2022 interview with Gendron.)
- The Quick guide to avoid ageism in communication, (downloadable .pdf) from the W.H.O.
- 10 Microaggressions Older People Will Recognize Immediately, from the Huffington Post.