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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Blogger Brian Creech, said...

True, it can be very hard to fumble over your tongue as you try to talk about groups that you aren't normally sensitized to. Any link on where we might find the style guide?

March 31, 2009 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Patricia Thomas said...

I incorporated the tinyurl for the style guide in my post, but somehow neglected to turn it into a working link. Must go back and fix that.

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