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Ageism in the news

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

There's no way for journalists to avoid covering age this election season.

Assuming the current front-runners hold, whoever is elected as president in November will become the oldest person ever sworn into the highest office. Whether it's Donald Trump or Joe Biden, it will be the second time they've broken that record.

Voters clearly have concerns, more about Biden's age but also about Trump's. It shows up over and over in both polls and voter interviews. This is an opportunity for journalists to challenge the beliefs we have about aging and competence.

The Trump campaign contributes to the conversation, questioning Biden's age and mental fitness. Biden's representatives question Trump's mental fitness and health, without mentioning age.

For the record, Biden is 81; he turns 82 in November. Trump is 77; he turns 78 in June.

Given all the talk about age, it's not surprising that our inbox has several notes from audience members who have questions and concerns about ageism slipping into NPR's journalism. We have letters questioning the fairness of NPR's coverage of the presidential candidates' ages. And we also have a letter that detects some condescension in a headline about older consumers. The letter writers aren't advocating for NPR to ignore issues of aging. Instead, they are asking for fairness and fact-checking. Below we address several notes from listeners and readers.

Journalism itself has a confusing attachment to age. Students are often taught to include the age of every source in news stories, only to graduate into a profession where the practice is inconsistent at best.

Associated Press style, which NPR follows, is sufficiently vague. AP instructs reporters to include ages in stories "when deemed relevant to the situation" and also for "profiles, obituaries, significant career milestones and achievements unusual for the age." So, if a reporter or an editor believes age is relevant to a story, it's explicitly included. That puts a lot of pressure on newsrooms to find a consistent way to make the subjective call.

Age is definitely interesting. It tells us something if a person becomes CEO at 25, at 40 or at 55. But it's also revealing when journalists elect to include the age of some people, but not others.

This flexibility in the guidance around when to identify someone's age is just one opportunity for bias to seep into stories. More insidious stereotypes are those that assume aging is an undesirable condition, that older people are inferior due to mental and physical decline and that therefore they are a problem to be managed.

Journalism that fuels stereotypes harms the audience it is trying to serve. The press can perpetuate common assumptions that appear in the broader culture. Or it can provide a more accurate assessment that equips people to challenge their own beliefs.

As the election unfolds over the next six months, we will probably see all of the above. With a little precision and clarity, we might just come out the other side with a more accurate understanding of aging and better vocabulary to discuss it. — Kelly McBride


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Is NPR fairly reporting on political figures' ages?

Numerous audience members have written to our office with concern that NPR is reporting too much about President Joe Biden's age (81). At the same time, in their view, NPR is not fairly focusing on the age of Republican leaders like former President Donald Trump (77) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (82).

Both Trump and Biden, the presumptive presidential candidates, set the record as oldest president when they took office.

Jan Linn wrote on Feb. 10: What kind of ethical standard does NPR online live by when three major headlines on its front page were all about President Biden's age and memory. Exactly how has his age or memory hampered the job he has done and is doing? ...

Hans Johnson wrote on Feb. 11: Your 4-minute report this Sunday morning on NPR about Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell mentioned his "health problems" and his "absences from the Senate" and his "public freezing episodes." You also discussed his longevity and record-setting tenure in leading a Senate caucus.But you never mentioned his age. Not once. Why not? Senator McConnell turns 82 next weekend, on Feb. 20. He is older than President Joe Biden. ...

Linda Campbell wrote on Feb. 14: It's very frustrating to me what a big deal you are making about Biden's age and occasional misspeaks. You do NOT cover Donald Trump's ... misspeaks ... in the same way and with the same amount of time. As a country I think we are in a difficult situation with two elderly presidential candidates but please be more responsible in how you cover the issue for BOTH of them!

Because coverage of age has the potential to slip into ageism, NPR standards editor Tony Cavin on Feb. 9 issued guidance to the newsroom.

"The presumptive candidates in this year's election are both older men," his memo read. "Age has already been raised as an issue in this campaign and will surely continue to be part of the discourse. The age of the candidates is a legitimate issue and one that's on voters' minds. We need to cover it, but we should cover it smartly and thoughtfully as people expect from NPR.

"And, as with all issues, especially those where we are talking about groups of people, we need to be very careful when choosing our words, and not use ageist language such as 'senior moment' or stereotypes such as 'grumpy old man,' 'aging boomer,' etc."

We analyzed a number of recent political stories from NPR that addressed the mental fitness or age of older political leaders. Sometimes reporters talked explicitly about age and sometimes they discussed age-related issues, without mentioning the specific age of the politician.

For example, ahead of Biden's 80th birthday in 2022, Washington Desk senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving wrote in depth about age in the modern presidency. Elving noted that Biden was the oldest person to become president, and also analyzed the age and tenure of recent presidents from both parties, including Trump.

Last September, congressional editor Kelsey Snell reported a wide-ranging story about the number of older congressional leaders, from both parties. The story, as well as the introduction from the host, mentioned both specific ages as well as health concerns.

In a more recent story from Weekend Edition on Feb. 11, NPR political correspondent Susan Davis reported on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's slipping influence in the Republican Party as party members are increasingly choosing to align with Trump. The story also mentioned McConnell's health issues, without mentioning his age (just shy of 82 at the time).

We asked Cavin, the standards editor, whether he thought McConnell's age should have been mentioned in the story.

"While there was a mention of the times McConnell seemed to freeze up I don't think McConnell's age was all that relevant to the main point of the piece, that he no longer controlled the party, not because he was old and infirm but because he no longer represented the majority of the party," Cavin wrote in an email.

In an August Morning Edition story about McConnell's second public freeze, his age was not mentioned, while the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein's was. (She was 90.) It's not clear why one age was cited and the other not.

More promising, several recent stories have set out to help people see the difference between aging and cognitive decline.

A Consider This conversation on Feb. 13 asked whether Biden faces a double standard in regards to concerns about his age, compared to Trump. The age of both candidates was mentioned prominently in the story.

Code Switch on Feb. 16 examined the common and often false assumptions that lead to ageism. The analysis explored whether questions about Biden and Trump might spill over and harm other people. Tracey Gendron, a gerontologist and the author of the book Ageism Unmasked, said that "age in and of itself does not tell you what somebody's experiences are, what somebody's values are, what somebody's health status is, what somebody's cognitive status is."

In an All Things Considered conversation and related digital piece in early February, Science Desk correspondent Jon Hamilton asked experts how cognitive function in older adults is assessed.

Hamilton said the story idea came during a news meeting soon after Biden confused the president of Egypt with the president of Mexico. Editors discussed a story idea looking at Biden's mental fitness.

Hamilton decided to broaden the focus of his story to evaluating age-related cognitive changes. He said he didn't want Biden to be the sole focus, because the public has also raised questions about the mental fitness of Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

"The question I wanted to get at was: Are the things we've seen from both Trump and Biden, are they part of normal aging, or are they, in themselves, signs of dementia?" Hamilton said.

The experts in Hamilton's story shared how aging changes memory, but were clear that gaffes are not nearly enough to assess someone's mental fitness.

Based on this analysis, NPR is doing more stories on Biden's age than Trump's. This could be for a variety of reasons, including, as Tamara Keith noted on Consider This, Americans are likely to see a lot of Biden because he's the current president: "Every time he travels, goes up and down the stairs, walks with that stiff gait to Marine One, there's video. Every time he gives a speech, it's televised."

Cavin said that this also relates to political strategy: "Republicans have successfully made an issue out of Biden's age and it's now part of the political debate. While Trump is only marginally younger, Democrats have focused more on his statements and his policies than on his age. Our job as journalists is to report what people are saying but to also fact-check it and put it in context. ... We need to clearly convey to our audience what the debate is and as importantly, what a victory by either candidate would mean for voters."

Another factor driving the coverage is the special counsel reportfrom Republican Robert Hur about Biden's handling of classified material that described him as a "sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory." Democratic strategist Paul Begala told NPR the report "clears him legally and kneecaps him politically."

Hamilton told us a political leader's lapse in memory may be newsworthy, especially if they have a history of it. But, "journalists should work a little bit like courtrooms ... you can't put anybody on the stand and say, 'Talk about mental fitness.' If you want to quote somebody talking about somebody's mental fitness, they better have the credentials and the information to do it."

Reporting that cites Hur's comments about Biden's memory should give the context that Hur, a lawyer without a medical background, is assessing mental cognition.

As the presidential race proceeds and as questions about other aging politicians arise, journalists concerned with fairness must ask if they are covering a candidate's age because it's an issue, or because the opposition is making it an issue. If age is relevant to a story, it should be reported for all subjects fairly and factually. Similarly, a newsroom policy might urge reporters to be explicit about age-related health or cognitive issues.

Ultimately, reporting should make it clear to the news consumer how specific issues might affect a candidate's ability to do their job. — Emily Barske Wood

An ageist headline?

Virginia Kay wrote on Feb. 14: Bill Chappell, author of 'What is Temu, and should you let your parents order from it?' may not have written the snotty, AGEIST title of the article. But I'm a sustaining member of a public radio station and I'm disgusted by the incredible condescension and not subtle promotion of Amazon. Whatever advanced age I'm fortunate enough to reach, if I'm capable of managing a credit card, then I'll be capable of deciding on a provider. ...

On Feb. 14, NPR published a story under the headline, "What is Temu, and should you let your parents order from it?" The digital story, by Bill Chappell, serves as a guide to Temu, an Amazon competitor that allows customers to buy discount goods from Chinese sellers. The headline was later changed to what readers see now: "Temu promises cheap goods. Here's how the shopping app does it."

NPR didn't specifically note that the headline on the story was changed.

"The original headline intended to show that Temu's most loyal shoppers are actually baby boomers and Gen Xers, so older Americans," Fernando Alfonso III, a senior supervising editor who manages Newshub, told us. He shared a link to a Bloomberg article that cites data from the Chicago research firm Attain, adding that it "shows that baby boomers shopped twice as much on the app as Gen Z consumers." The NPR story, though, doesn't explore who buys most from Temu.

Alfonso said the original headline was crafted within NPR's Newshub and declined to specify further. He said that the headline changed because a deputy managing editor saw it and "felt that it should play it straighter on the news as opposed to what was initially cooked up." He added that he would have preferred the story to state more explicitly that Temu is very popular among older Americans, to make it connect more clearly with the initial headline.

In response to the audience member's opinion that the headline came across as ageist, Alfonso said: "I would say absent a more thorough inclusion of the data on Temu's most fervent users, which are, again, older Americans, I can see why a reader would have drawn that conclusion from the headline."

Alfonso added that NPR as an organization strives to show respect to everyone, including people of all ages.

Age is "something we take very seriously in terms of how we cover any given topic — to make sure that we are fair and transparent around why, when we're mentioning age, why we're doing so, and what that means to any particular story," he said.

The importance of a good headline cannot be understated. A headline is the gateway to a story, and it is meant to inform and capture the attention of readers. In this case, we see how an audience member found the original headline condescending. Absent detailed information about the age demographics of Temu's most loyal customers, the headline did imply that older consumers need guidance as they shop online. We appreciate the decision to change the headline to one that better matches the article's content. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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