Healthy Journalism

Monday, March 30, 2009

Foot-in-mouth disease

Most journalists know better than to use racist or sexist terms, thanks to decades of consciousness raising and education.

But we may offend other groups of readers or viewers because we don’t know any better, or because we suffer a momentary lapse in empathy. Consider the beneficiaries of what some call “the longevity revolution.” Average life expectancy in the United States increased by 30 years during the Twentieth Century, meaning that the thoughtless use of ageist terms by a reporter can alienate unprecedented numbers of people.

Now there’s a style guide to help journalists, script writers and advertisers. Media Takes: On Aging was prepared by the International Longevity Center-USA and Aging Services of California, and it’s available at

Our oldest citizens are the largest consumers of health and medical services, and often the closest followers of stories about health care reform and about clinical advances. Writing for and about them is a big part of being on the health beat these days, and it makes sense to purge our work of ageist language.

Most of us know not to use obviously insulting terms such as “codger” or “sweet old lady,” but we may not realize that “baby boomers” is viewed by some of the 76 million Americans in this birth cohort as condescending, while “boomer” or “boomer generation” is not.

And how about “elderly?” Perfectly acceptable in a phrase like “services for the elderly,” but verboten as an adjective applied to an individual: “The elderly Mr. Ripley.” Better to say “Tom Ripley, 87, opened the door to his palazzo.“

Although the monograph’s advice about ageist terminology is welcome, the glossary is its real strength. People lost in the alphabet soup of federal and state programs serving people over 65, or those who befuddled by all the different flavors of congregate living arrangements, will find welcome assistance here.

If you’re like me, you give inadvertent offense more often than you’d like. But this style guide can help you stay on good terms with of the oldest and wisest among us.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Voices Carry

Let's hear it for Dr. Jim Yong Kim, who earlier this week was named the next president of Dartmouth College. Just one year ago, he came to Athens to speak in the Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard lecture series.

Dan Colley, who heads UGA's Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, and I have been organizing this series together since 2006. And although we can't establish that being featured in it turbo-charges careers that are already in high gear, we can't help but notice that good things happen to Voices from the Vanguard speakers.

Victoria Hale, founder and CEO of the world's first nonprofit drug company, inaugurated the series in January 2006. One month later, she was named a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow.

UC Irvine biologist Tony James, whose lab engineered mosquitoes that can't be infected with the malaria parasite, gave the Voices lecture in March 2006. In April, he was elected to the National Academies of Sciences.

Jim Kim was already a MacArthur "genius" winner when he delivered the February 2008 Voices lecture at the UGA Chapel. He was famous for co-founding Partners in Health with his friend Paul Farmer, and he was chairman of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Kim delivered one of the most compelling Voices lectures ever, he was mobbed by students during the post-talk reception, and dozens of cell phone cameras captured grinning students pressed close to a true public health hero.

And now this Korean-born, Iowa-raised physician and anthropologist is going to be president of an Ivy League institution.

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy, and we're proud to have heard his voice here at UGA.