‘Old’ and the beholder

We had a good discussion this morning in budget about age as the “frame” for this story about two women who are competing in the Missouri 340 canoe race. I thought the problem was the headline (“Age doesn’t deter Columbia women from competing in river race”). Jeanne Abbott was bugged by the “rounding up” on the women’s ages. One commenter didn’t like that we didn’t talk about the oldest men competing in the race (this reader didn’t like the story at all). Students at budget weren’t offended, noting that the women in the story identified themselves as “grannies” in their team name.
This age stuff can be tricky. Often, people’s ages should be included in stories (better to have the age and not use it than not have it and have an editor asking you why you didn’t ask for it). But when we begin to make assumptions about a person’s capabilities because of their age (or their gender, ethnicity, economic or marital status, mental or physical disabilities) we can offend readers.
This blogger has some interesting things to say about age and who’s reading newspapers (and some observations about two recent New York Times stumbles on this issue). Scroll down to the second item.
Think about your own biases about age. Many of us have them, I think. Being aware is the first step to getting a bad frame out of your mind as you report.

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14 Responses to ‘Old’ and the beholder

  1. EmokeBebiak says:

    I think being considerate about assumptions made based on age is quite challenging. I find it really hard to assume the same about a 20-year-old than a 80-year-old. Of course, I do agree that journalists shouldn’t generalize based on age, but also, we can’t deny that there are differences between age groups.
    I have vague memories from Journalism 101 where my professor said that age should be mentioned only when it adds a new meaning to the story: e.g. when the subject is really young or really “north of 55.” But then again, this constitutes people in between as the norm, which reinforces the idea that certain age groups are not as capable as others. So then, should we just ignore age and not raise attention to it at all?

  2. Alvaro Guzman says:

    I think that it is interesting (and commendable) to question oneself about whether or not we would have written this story at all (or if we would have done it from a different angle) if it was the case of two old men.

    However, in this case, I don’t think it is offensive, because of both what you mentioned about the two women calling themselves grannies, and also because the story was written by a woman as well. Sometimes this eagerness to be politically correct can make it very hard to function in both the daily life and the professional practice of journalism.

    I personally enjoyed reading the article and thought that it was the ladies’ age that made it relevant. Good job!

  3. Katie Bevan says:

    I would tend to think that this is purely a case by case issue.
    For the race story, I can’t imagine offending anyone who identified themselves as “grannies”. They set themselves up for the age identification.
    I also think that females in general are more sensitive when it comes to the topic of age.
    I will say that it was interesting to me that the age of the students in the “back to campus” story from Tuesday was shared. I think that general, the age of students is around the same span of years, and that it didn’t really add much to the story. Yet it was added.

    Again, case by case basis. I think that the reporter should generally be able to feel if it is appropriate, necessary, or interesting enough to add age into the equation.

  4. drenwick says:

    My 98-year-old great aunt can still recite Latin vocabulary terms she learned early in her schooling years. It’s true we as journalists should not play the “age card.” Someone who can still paddle, bike, run, or any other activity at 80, 85, 90 is still an interesting story – one that could focus on how the person has lived an active life not why s/he is still “lucid” at that age.

  5. amrita88 says:

    I thought the article was interesting and especially surprising when it revealed that online consumers of the paper are the same as those who read the print product. I would not have imagined that to be true, but again, I guess it reveals a bias about age.
    I think what we discussed at the budget meeting made the most sense; include the age, just as a number, but attach no descriptions or inferences to it.


  6. The author of “Note to editors: respect your elders” brings up a good point that I find quite interesting. We live and write in a time when referring to people in the least offensive, most correct way possible is emphasized, yet we’ve given little thought to age. I wonder about the reason behind the lack of attention. Is it because of self-labeling, as in the case of the “Carp Target Grannies”? Or is it really a case of disrespect? Has this always been an issue, or is it just becoming more apparent because of how carefully other potentially offensive labels are handled? Or could it be that the universality of the aging process has masked this particular issue?

    Emoke made a good point in her response when she said, ” . . . we can’t deny that there are differences between age groups.” Truly, we can’t people have differences. But, as a reporter, we can present the facts as they are, and leave the noting of differences to the readers.

    Still, this raises another question in my mind–one that will take more pondering. Surely there are times when it is acceptable to note the age of someone who falls into the category commonly referred to as “elderly,” but how are those times identified? When is it okay, and when should it be avoided?

    It seems like a simple topic, but it certainly raises many responses.

  7. rosiedowney says:

    This now ties in with the lecture we had today about errors made during the reporting process. According to the data presented this morning, ages along with professions, positions, political parties and dates are the second most common error made by reporters. This is troubling when you consider that it is one of the easiest pieces of information to get right. The process is simple: Ask any source their age, confirm and accuracy check it later and you shouldn’t have any problems!

  8. I remember learning in cross-cultural journalism that choosing information that added value to the story is completely necessary before proceeding. I know it applies more to ethnicity, race, and things of that nature, but I do think it can apply to the age question. In this story, I do believe that age added value to the story, and made it even more interesting to read.

    But in general, I do believe, to reiterate what many have said, that age is not a principle that can be written into all stories. There are many instances, most I would argue, where age does nothing for the story. So while you should always have it should it become relevant, everyone should think long and hard about whether it better serves the reader, because that is what we are here to do.

  9. benfrentzel says:

    I agree with drenwick’s comment, and I have noticed age and wisdom are beginning to lose their social respect in North America.

    Other countries like China have always (and very much still) regard age as something to ultimately shoot for. It symbolizes wisdom and respect and following tradition. This differs from our country’s perpetual snipe hunt for youth and radical individuality.

    My great aunt, Albertine, has an uncanny ability to remember telephone numbers without ever writing them down. She sees me searching my contact folder on my cell phone and shakes her head mumbling obscenities and boastful comments about her own abilities.

    So, bring on the age reporting. Show me I’m not the only one with an 88-year-old phone number freak aunt. Our elders seem to share a common pride in their seemingly unaltered mental abilities and they deserve the publicity.

  10. holmberges says:

    I think that what this story is all is not trivializing what other people do. One of the most interesting things I’ve read with regards to journalism is that people don’t think they’re doing something amazing, they’re just living their lives. The Amish don’t think it’s amazing they make it through everyday without using electricity, so instead of telling the reader how amazing they are, why not describe the process of making a meal…you convey the facts along with the emotions of how difficult their lifestyle is.

    The fact that these women were middle-aged doesn’t make us look good. Maybe if they’re 80+ then it’s okay to take that angle, but still, we don’t want to lionize people. If the story is so incredible, understate it. When people do amazing things, the actions speak for themselves.

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  12. Audrey Moon says:

    This post got me thinking about my grandmother, who is, quite honestly, in better shape than I am. She ran her last half-marathon at 83, walks 5 miles a day, is an avid yoga participant, and never ceases to amaze me with her physical capabilities. One thing that has always bothered her is when people make sarcastic remarks or comments about her age. “Hey, good lookin’!” “You haven’t aged a bit!” In one race the runner behind her kept yelling, “This woman is 80 years old!”

    She has always been offended when people comment on her age because at this point in her life, she doesn’t want it to define her. She isn’t done living and she never wants people to measure what she has done with a number.

    As amazing as she is, and I do love to brag about her, I still respect that she wants her story to be measured by accomplishments and not her age. How old a person is can be important to a story, but I think journalists need to be very careful to define a person by what he or she does in their life, and not define them by how many years it has taken them to do it.

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