Monday, August 16, 2010

Note to editors: Respect your elders

With most newspapers drawing more than half their audience from people who are 55 years of age and older, you would think they would avoid insulting those readers. But you would be wrong.

Although respectable media practitioners generally have learned to mind their manners when referring to individuals of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientation, physical capabilities and mental capacities, a notable lack of sensitivity persists toward people who have five, six, seven or more decades under their belts.

A couple examples of Chronological Incorrectness occurred over the weekend in the New York Times, which is widely regarded as one of the most carefully edited papers in the land. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. So, listen up, whippersnappers.

In the first instance of Chronological Incorrectness, the paper gratuitously stated that an 84-year-old woman quoted in a story was “lucid.” The woman was interviewed in connection with the coverage of the 65th anniversary of the classic sailor-kisses-a-woman picture that was snapped in Times Square on the day World War II ended.

In the initial online posting of the article about the woman on Friday evening in the City Blog, Gloria Bullard, a retired nurse, was characterized as “vivacious and lucid.” By the time the story made it to page one of the print edition on Saturday, “lucid” thankfully was expunged. At last check, however, it remained on the web, as shown below:

What’s the big deal? Glad you asked.

Unless otherwise noted, I presume everyone interviewed for a New York Times article – as well as the journalist conducting the interview – is indeed lucid. To go out of the way to state that someone north of 55 is lucid is to buy into the decidedly false assumption that she is a doddering geezette.

That is flat-out insulting to this individual and all her peers, who also, hands down, happen to be the most faithful customers that newspaper publishers have.

The second instance of Chronological Incorrectness in the Times occurred on the front page of the business section on Sunday in a story about how new management is trying to revive the Archie comic franchise. “At 68,” said the article, “Archie is suddenly looking awfully spry.”

Although the reference to the comic character was lighthearted, the use of the word “spry” is offensive, because it buys into the proposition – quite often unfounded – that those north of 55 are likely to be physically feeble or infirm.

Thanks to advances in medical care (for those fortunate enough to afford it) and greater awareness of the dangers of processed food, the benefits of exercise and the insanity of smoking, todays 55-plus crowd on average will live longer than any preceding generation.

All signs indicate that this generation also will be actively engaged for many more years to come in the realms of commerce, government, education, non-profit pursuits and almost every other facet of society.

Given the wretched turn in the economy in the last few years, those north of 55 will try to be actively engaged in the workplace – whether they like it or not – for far more years than any prior generation.

In an example of the enduring influence of this generation on the body politic, more than three-quarters of the members of U.S. Senate are north of 55, with four in their eighties, 23 in their seventies and 34 in their sixties.

As to another of the unfortunate misapprehensions about those north of 55, it should be noted that they are not technologically recalcitrant. Far from being fuddy-duddy Luddites, newspaper website visitors – as discussed previously here – actually appear to be early and passionate technology adopters.

Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive, the foremost expert on consumer behavior at newspaper websites, has found in hundreds of surveys across the country that newspaper web visitors look exactly like consumers of the print product.

The reason for this is that newspaper site visitors actually are the same people who read the print product – a not-so-fun fact that should shiver the timbers of publishers concerned about the long-term mortality of their predominant customer base. Eventually, you see, even spry people die.

While smart newspaper editors and publishers are scrambling to diversify the demographics of their audience as fast as they can with any number of print, online and mobile products, the least they can do in the meantime is to respect the people who happen to be their very best customers.

And that, until further notice, would be their elders.

12 Comments:

Blogger BlogOplast said...

Using the word ageism dates me but forgive me for not being up to date on the latest term. Chronologically speaking I'm in that ballpark where my ability to get a job after the one I have now (which is being outsourced early next year) is going to be hampered by this kind of thinking. Note the recent story about the Google employee who was called an "old fuddy-duddy" by his youthful co-workers and then demoted out of the way of the corporate "culture" and finally canned. He took it to court and won an appeal that will now open up the possibility to defend against this sure to be prevalent type of case for the rest of time.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Racoon said...

Well said, Alan!

6:22 AM  
Blogger Keith Moyer said...

Alan:
Using the ages of those in Congress does not necessarily strengthen your point nor speak well of those of us over the age of 55!

That said, good piece.

7:40 AM  
Blogger sandra said...

As host of www.widowslist.com where the average age is 65-80, I can verify most of us are lucid, witty, wise--and busy using Kindles and computers. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Sandra Pesmen

5:50 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Jerry Ceppos:

When I was a young editor at the Miami Herald, readers used to complain about our thoughtless definition of "elderly" in news stories.

Being old now, I can't remember exactly what the definition was, but it probably referred to folks in their 50s and 60s. The problem is clearer to me now.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

My mother is almost 92 and still lives independently. She has all her marbles. She has most of my marbles. And she still has a Boston Globe subscription... although she complains that it isn't the paper it once was.

She liked the online edition (for ability to get to a bigger type size) until she had cataract's removed a decade ago. With the corneal transplant, her eyesight is better than mine now. Much better. So back to enjoying print she went.

I would say she's much more lucid than the typical Globe editor, especially after today's nonsensical editorial on net neutrality. Probably more spry, too.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Sheryl Kraft said...

Ah. Relief. Well said! Thank you for saying what I couldn't quite put into words myself. I myself took great offense to an article in last Thursday's Style Section, about a 40- something woman who considers all women her age "A Currently Struggling 'Formerly'. Um, what does that make us 50 and 60-somethings? Hopeless and helpless has-beens?

6:59 AM  
Blogger Rochelle said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I'm 32, soon to turn 33, and you've given me something to think about. Before I read this, I wouldn't have thought twice, but now I see how this coverage is indeed ageist. Thank you!

7:55 PM  
Blogger bottomdweller said...

Are you saying that all smokers are insane?

6:32 PM  
Blogger Pat Summers said...

Ironic that your 2 examples of ageism come from the NYTimes, where last year a blog in the health section touted a handbook meant to prevent this very thing: Media Takes: On Aging. It's a styleguide(sic) to ageism in journalism, entertainment and advertising and it's very convincing. Jointly published in 2009 by the International Longevity Center-USA and Aging Services of California. Best of all, it offers language alternatives.

Pat Summers

1:20 PM  
Blogger JoAnn said...

Just wait until I can find my cane to flog them with . . .

6:42 PM  
Blogger JoAnn said...

I cringed in reading the subject matter. It reminds me of a time when a sub was playing in our tennis league, and at the conclusion, she offered what she intended as a compliment to those of us between 38 & 50, saying, "Gosh ladies, I hope when I am your age, I can play half as well as you do." I didn't smack her with my raquet, but the thought occurred to my lucid brain!

6:45 PM  

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