Stereotypes and Representations of Aging in the Media

Article excerpt

How are older adults presented in print and in the electronic media? Are they underrepresented? Are they accurately portrayed? Based on our examination of several forms of media over a four-month period, we discuss the role of the media in shaping our views on aging. Quantitative and qualitative analyses reveal that media representations often contribute to misunderstandings and stereotypes. We hypothesize that, as America ages, media representations of aging and the aged will be more accurate, and will lead to a better understanding of the varied interests, abilities and needs of older adults.

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It is said that the media both reflect and shape our culture. It follows that the representation of older adults and aging in the media may serve two purposes--it may reveal common stereotypes that exist in our society, and it may actually teach or reinforce existing stereotypes.

Children and young adults who often have limited contact with older adults, other than their grandparents, may develop beliefs about aging based on what they see in the media. If older adults are under-represented (Maas & Hasbrook, 2001; Robinson & Skill, 1995; Robinson & Anderson, 2006), or the majority of the representations are negative (Bishop & Krause, 1984; Dail, 1988), then negative stereotypes are likely to develop. Our study was an exploratory study designed to assess potential bias in the media. We did a quantitative and qualitative comparison of some of the media sources to which young adults are exposed.

Method

During the spring semester of 2008, the students enrolled in an introductory gerontology course had the option of completing a media scrapbook to satisfy one of their course requirements. The other options that the students could consider were to volunteer to work with older adults, keeping a journal and reflecting on that experience; or to learn about career opportunities in their major field, considering the benefit of a background in gerontology.

The media scrapbook was, by far, the most popular choice, with 19 of the 27 students electing to complete a scrapbook. The second most popular choice was to research career options; there were seven students who chose that option. Only one student volunteered to work with older adults and reflect on the experience.

Over a four-month period, the 19 students who selected the scrapbook option reviewed various forms of electronic and print media, identifying items that dealt with aging and older adults. They collected what items they could, such as articles, print advertisements and cartoons, and wrote descriptions of the items that could not be placed in a scrapbook, such as movies, billboards and radio reports. Items organized in the scrapbooks formed the basis for quantitative and qualitative analyses of the representation of aging and the aged in the media.

Results

We categorized the scrapbook items by whether they presented aging and older adults in a positive, neutral, or negative way. We also separated the items by media type. Articles were the most common items (328), followed by cartoons (60), and then advertisements (158). Other types of media, such as songs, poems, movies, and blogs, were less common and were grouped together as "other" (96). …