From as early as age 3, people begin to form negative biases toward older people, research has shown, and as many as half of all people worldwide carry ageist beliefs. For journalists, recognizing inherent biases is key to producing better, deeper coverage of aging-related issues and stories involving older people.
The following tips, provided by two experienced journalists who have spent decades covering health and aging, are designed to help newsrooms improve their coverage of longevity and topics that matter to older adults. By developing a more informed and nuanced approach to these stories, journalists can contribute to eradicating ageism and its many harmful effects.
1. Terminology matters.
The phrases “senior citizens” and “the elderly,” once in common usage as nouns, are today sometimes considered demeaning to older people, says Paul Kleyman, a longtime journalist and the national coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations, an organization that provides information and networking opportunities for journalists who cover aging issues. Those terms may imply that they are separate from other citizens, or frail. However, Kleyman adds, “elderly” is sometimes acceptable as a modifier.
Using the word “seniors” to describe older people as a group is generally okay, Kleyman says, but “older people” is considered the most neutral language. Be careful with “old.” While some find the phrase “old people” to be more accurate than “older people” – “We’re all perpetually ‘older’ until we’re dead, right?” says Kleyman – other people find that phrase insulting, because many people who have lived a long time don’t feel “old.” And while acceptable, the phrase “older people” is vague. When possible, it’s best to be specific when referring to population groups by age; for example, say “people aged 65 and older” or “people who are 80 years old and older.”
The AP Stylebook echoes these sentiments: “The term elderly is acceptable in headlines when relevant and necessary because of space constraints. But aim for specificity when space allows: Couple in their 90s die in Manhattan luxury high-rise blaze rather than Elderly couple die in Manhattan luxury high-rise blaze.”
In general, reporting about people in terms of their identities is hard, but carefully considering how we do so is useful. “It makes you think about the limits of our language,” Kleyman says. “We have this constant incentive to seek precision, but then we also need to understand that precision is of a cultural moment.”
It’s always possible that some people will object to the language journalists use in referring to their identities. Kleyman advises using these instances as opportunities to explore why people are objecting to a term. Journalists who are unsure about the right descriptors to use should consider asking sources how they want to be described, he says. “Of course, I had one person who I was writing about who said, ‘Just call me an old fart!’ There’s always one.”
2. Avoid using stereotypical images.
The old woman staring out a window, or sitting in a wheelchair at a nursing home. The old man with a cane sitting alone on a park bench. Images like these can perpetuate negative stereotypes about older people as less capable, lonely, sick and in decline.
Although research shows print media especially has improved significantly in this regard in recent decades, mass media portrayals remain largely stereotypical, says Liz Seegert, a longtime health and aging reporter and the aging topic lead for the Association of Health Care Journalists. “If somebody older is on a TV show, they either get portrayed as a grumpy old man or somebody who’s a little out of it,” she says. “There are very few accurate portrayals.”
When possible, using images that directly illustrate the story at hand are best. But that’s not always possible, especially on tight deadlines and tight budgets. In such instances, the best choice is the most neutral image: an older hand with a younger hand, for example.
“The simplest advice is to think about what you want your story to convey,” says Kleyman. “If you have to default at the last minute, try to go with a neutral image… In terms of your ongoing messaging as a reporter, I think it’s important to just stop and think.”
3. Flip and broaden the narrative.
If a story is only a story because of the age of the person involved, reporters and editors should look for a broader angle — or a new story. With a little more thought and reporting, that story about an 85-year-old who ran a marathon can be transformed into a story about the increasingly active lifestyles of older people, says Seegert.
“I wouldn’t write the story on just the fact that he’s 85 and ran a marathon,” she says. “I would flip it [and explain that] Joe Smith just ran his 10th marathon at age 85, and this is becoming a more common occurrence as people live longer.”
That said, it’s critical to seek the individual perspectives of multiple older people when reporting on topics that affect them, because the experiences and opinions of older adults vary.
This is in sharp contrast to the damaging misperception that older people are part of one monolithic group.
“There are all these stereotypes about older people as a group,” says Seegert, “like everybody’s going to have dementia, everybody’s going to be frail, and they’re no good at technology, for example, or they can’t learn anything new. The truth is… only a very small percentage of people wind up in nursing homes. Most older people, while they may slow down a little bit or have some chronic diseases they have to manage, live pretty normal, everyday lives.”
4. Check your bias before the interview.
The biggest mistake reporters make on stories about older people, says Kleyman, is that they approach the older person as someone in a state of decline, rather than as someone at a later stage of growth and maturity, with important wisdom and experience to share. Making a mental note of your attitude before an interview can help avoid this.
5. Know the Big 4.
The United States has four primary national, interdisciplinary nonprofit organizations that specialize in aging-related issues and research: The American Geriatric Society, the American Society on Aging, the Gerontological Society of America, and the National Council on Aging. Kleyman says understanding the mission and focus of each can help inform reporter’s coverage of aging issues and related research.
American Geriatric Society: Founded in 1942, this New-York-based organization has a membership of about 6,000 geriatrics healthcare providers, including physicians, nurses, and social workers. AGS is focused on research and dissemination of knowledge to improve health care and outcomes for older adults in the U.S.
American Society on Aging: Based in San Francisco, the American Society of Aging, where Kleyman worked as editor of Aging Today for about 20 years, grew out of a regional organization in 1954 and focuses on connecting with community programs and the business community. It produces podcasts and webinars and provides resources on issues such as spirituality and aging.
Gerontological Society of America: Focused broadly on academic research and translating research to practice, GSA has about 5,500 members – including behavioral and social scientists, clinicians, biologists, psychologists, social workers, educators, economists, and policy experts – in the US and abroad. Founded in 1945 and based in Washington, DC., the organization publishes journals, newsletters and trend reports, and sponsors a fellowship for journalists covering aging issues.
National Council on Aging: A national lobbying group founded in 1950, the NCOA advocates for community service programs, particularly those that benefit lower-income and otherwise marginalized older people. The organization also provides tools and resources for community groups and individuals.
It is important to note that the field of gerontology – the study of aging, old age, and problems that affect older people – only formed about 100 years ago and started to gain momentum after World War II. Increases in longevity necessitated professional associations to share knowledge and establish best practices in studying aging processes and issues unique to older people.
“There is a social and political lag in all of this,” says Kleyman. “The systems really need to catch up.”
6. Explore other points of view.
In addition to the four major national groups, there are issue-specific nonprofits and associations involved in studying and lobbying on aging-related topics. These can be useful sources of information, but Kleyman advises to first ask or dig into where each organization gets its funding. Legal advocacy groups, like Justice in Aging, and community groups are also excellent resources.
Additionally, because women, on average, earn less and live longer than men, many chronic conditions and social issues like ageism are problems that disproportionately affect women. Reporters should consider seeking the viewpoints of women and women’s health organizations for aging-related stories. Seek out sources through organizations such as the National Women’s Health Network, Society for Women’s Health Research, National Women’s Law Center and Women in World Foundation.
Research to explore
Alison Flamion, et al. April 2020, Frontiers in Psychology
2021, World Health Organization.
Eugène Loos and Loredana Ivan. May 2018. Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism.
Take note: The Journalists Network on Generations publishes an e-mail newsletter called GBO News, which includes networking opportunities and information (including research) for journalists who cover stories about aging. Subscriptions are free to journalists.
To learn more about how to inform news coverage of issues related to aging, check out our research roundups on the impact of ageism, the epidemics of loneliness among older people and prescription drug prices.