Who says you’re old? Ageism and the media

Professor Merryn Gott (Director of Te Arai Care and End of Life Research Group) discusses how older people were disempowered as a result of negative media representation during the first Covid-19 outbreak.

The new media are not ways of relating to us the ‘real’ world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.

Marshall McLuhan

You may remember Marshall McLuhan from back in the day for his studies about the effects of new, or ‘mass’, media on thought and behaviour. ‘Mass media’, the precursor to ‘social media’, referred to broadcast media – the ‘broadcasting’ of a message from the few to the many via radio, TV and newspapers.

Though penned nearly 60 years ago, his point remains valid. The media isn’t just reporting on the real world, it’s changing it – and us. What do I mean? Take a minute to cast your thoughts back to February 2020 when Covid-19 was the thundercloud rolling toward our shores from overseas. We were desperate to learn more, and the Government and media stepped in, providing the most up-to-date data out there.

We soon learned that the virus most easily affected those 70 and over. Then in early March the media delivered the Government’s message that this age group was to stay home. Not bad advice given the risks, but with it came an ageist subtext that shocked many older Kiwis. Up until then, they’d seen themselves as healthy, active and engaged citizens. Now the media was saying, “you are old, vulnerable, passive and weak.” Ouch!

How do we know this? Our research team conducted a review of newspaper articles written in March 2020 and published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Our goal was to discover how the national mainstream media portrayed older New Zealanders during this time. What we learned may surprise you.

Out of the sample pool of 482 articles, from which we selected 91 as relevant, we found that older Kiwis weren’t the ones doing the talking about their own experience. Instead, government officials, politicians, NGOs/advocacy groups and service providers spoke for them. And what they said wasn’t empowering. Messages about being passive, worried and anxiously waiting for support cropped up, as did the theme that older people were a problem to be managed.

In the articles that did let the older mob have a say, a far more complex picture emerged. These news stories conveyed a strong sense that older Kiwis were carefully navigating the Covid-19 threat. And they were doing so while striving to maintain their independence and gather relevant information about the pandemic.

Why is this important? Does it really matter what the mainstream news said then – and is still saying now – about those 70+? To answer that question, I’ll end this blog by quoting a 75 year-old woman from West Auckland who gave us her opinion about our analysis.  She took the time to read it and another one we wrote on how the media reported Covid-19 deaths. She’s given me permission to share her views:

The downside of this type of constant portrayal could be the psychological effect that encourages older people to conform to the way they are expected to act i.e. frail and vulnerable when they really aren’t! Reading these papers has made me think hard about how much I’ve been affected psychologically by the constant bombardment of COVID-related news and how my life has changed as a result – and what I need to do to return to being the real me. 

To learn more:

Tessa Morgan, Janine Wiles, Lisa Williams & Merryn Gott (2021) COVID-19 and the portrayal of older people in New Zealand news media, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 51:sup1, S127-S142, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2021.1884098

Tessa Morgan, Melissa Carey, Merryn Gott, Lisa Williams, Victoria Egli & Natalie Anderson (2021) More than mortality data: a news media analysis of COVID-19 deaths in Aotearoa, New Zealand, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 16:2, 419-431, DOI: 10.1080/1177083X.2021.1905006

To learn more about our research group: https://tearairesearchgroup.wordpress.com/

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder from Pexels

About Te Arai Research Group

Te Ārai Research Group focuses on Palliative Care & End of Life Research in New Zealand

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.