A new resource from Columbia's Dart Center for journalists

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Dart Center, based at the Columbia School of Journalism and headed by colleague Bruce Shapiro, has issued a new style guide for trauma-informed journalism. Featured in the guide are stylistic considerations for reporting on age-related issues. You will find the style guide here and the ageism excerpt is below. The guide was edited by Isobel Thompson.

Ageism: This term was coined in 1969 by Robert N. Butler, the first director of the National Institute of Ageing. Butler believed ageism operates at both an individual and institutional level, and defined it as “[a] process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin color and gender. Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.” The social-change activist Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, described ageism as a fundamental engine of inequity, as potent as racism, sexism or homophobia.

Avoid generalizations when covering topics around aging, as well as stereotypical language and imagery. Never patronize a source, or presume they are disconnected from the complex physical and emotional life experienced by younger generations. 

Coverage of aging should always be centered on the fact that aging is a natural process and begins at conception. Consider the difference between chronological age and biological age as well as the heterogeneity of human aging which unfolds at different rates in different contexts. Increased longevity is an opportunity for individuals as well as societies who benefit from the social capital of older adults, something often overlooked in reporting that dwells on dependency ratios and chronic illness in older ages. As lifespans increase, the perception of what constitutes old age is changing.

Avoid the use of “seniors” and “elderly” to describe individuals or groups. 

Use medical terminology to describe common age-related medical conditions such as cognitive changes only when supported by a diagnosis. Check with an individual, or their caregiver if appropriate, to learn how they would like you to refer to their condition.