Voices from the Media on Covering Elders' Civic Engagement

Article excerpt

The traditional notion of retirement is changing. Casting aside the 20th century's "golden years" ideal of perpetual leisure, about 80% of Americans in their 50s and 60s expect to work at least part time through their so-called retirement years, according to recent surveys by AARP.

Although many of these boomers and those a bit older will continue working in their current jobs-often because they need the income and insurance benefits-about half say they will search for work that is more personally fulfilling and helps strengthen their communities in areas such as education, healthcare, the arts and the environment. These contributions-the kind of public-service efforts that have come to be identified as civic engagement-are often overlooked or trivialized by mainstream media, which remain largely focused on stereotypical notions of aging and the capabilities of older people.


To better understand the media's role in increasing public awareness of concerns about civic engagement of older people, the American Society on Aging, with support from the Atlantic Philanthropies, gathered about 30 journalists at ASA's 2006 Joint Conference with the National Council on Aging (NCOA) in Anaheim, Calif., last spring. A panel of veteran journalists on the age beat spoke to an audience of fellow reporters about the challenges in covering the emerging trend toward "unretirement," especially among the huge boomer generation.

Panelists agreed that the unwieldy phrase civic engagement-which one called an "awful piece of academic sociological jargon"-can make the concept harder to sell to editors and readers. Jane Glenn Haas, age-beat writer and columnist for The Orange County Register, advised reporters to "come up with something that is less governmental and ponderous." Top freelancer Elizabeth Pope said she's only used civic engagement once in a story; she added that she circumvents the phrase by referring to "volunteering, giving back, career changing."

Panelists explored ways that reporters can avoid promoting a new stereotype-which is replacing the current clichés of bungee-jumping grannies and parachuting ex-presidents-that is growing from periodic stories offering little to no depth or context about, for example, nice old Dr. Welby volunteering at the low-income clinic. Haas, winner of ASA's 2006 Media Award for local/regional reporting, said she tries to explore underlying issues. "A story like youngsters coming into a senior center gives me an opportunity to talk about both what the grandparents are doing and then the difficulties in society when there's not childcare for that, and so on," she said.

Washington Post columnist Abigail Trafford stated that writers can avoid stereotypes by questioning the definition of news and looking for stories that have an impact on readers. "What's news is what's new, what's different, what's a problem, what's shocking," she said. "You want someone to read your story and jump up and do something," she said.


Trafford noted that the news media often frame aging in "completely the wrong way. It's covered as a disaster story, like, 'What are we going to do with all these old people?'" The author of My Time: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (New York City: Basic Books, 2004), Trafford observed that any such stories can be improved so that demographic projections are used as a way to "explore some of the new dimensions."

Karen Westerberg Reyes, manager of editorial projects for AARP Publications, paraphrased a comment by Linda Ellerbee in an article Ellerbee wrote for AARP Magazine stating that stereotypes about older people persist because "we have allowed young people to define aging." In her article, Ellerbee urged the older group to take charge of the definition. In Reyes' observation, "That's exactly what's happening. We're on the cusp of that."

Referring to what she calls the "climb Mount Everest syndrome," Reyes said stories focusing on older people who have done extraordinary things make many readers feel their lives are comparatively dull. …