IPSO Blog: Striking a balance – positive and negative stereotypes in the media

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has recently published a report on how attitudes to ageing affect our health and wellbeing.

"That age old question" highlights how attitudes can be generated and reinforced in a number of ways including, it suggests, negatively framed headlines in the media.

The research looked at ageist attitudes across 12 areas of life and found that that the public are most ageist about appearance, memory loss and participation in physical and community activities. According the report, Millennials hold the most negative attitudes, with 40% believing that dementia is inevitable.

Not all the findings were negative and more than 69% the public agreed that “fundamentally, older people are no different from people of other ages”. Respondents from a black ethnic background had a more positive attitude to ageing than average.

The report makes a number of recommendations to tackle negative attitudes to ageing, including an independent and comprehensive review of the media representation of ageing and older people. It suggests that the review should look at both under-representation of older people in the media, and also misrepresentation – defined in the report as whether “issues that concern older people and the ageing process are presented with a negative or positive frame, as well the homogenisation of certain age categories, leading to the ‘othering’ of older people”.

The report also recommended that IPSO should include “age” in the Editors’ Code of Practice as a characteristic by which journalists must not discriminate.

The current Clause 12 (Discrimination) says:

  1. i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
  2. ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

The aim of Clause 12 is to protect individuals from discriminatory coverage. However, the Code does not cover generalised remarks about groups or categories of people. This would inhibit debate on important matters, would involve subjective views and would be difficult to adjudicate upon without infringing the freedom of expression of others.

As always, the Code is striking a balance between the rights of the public to freedom of speech and the rights of the individual. Freedom of expression must embrace the right to hold views that others might find distasteful and sometimes offensive.

The Editors’ Codebook – prepared by the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee who write and review the Code which is administered by IPSO  sets out some of the ways in which the Code is interpreted, and makes special reference to why age is not covered as part of Clause 12:

“Age is not one of the categories covered by Clause 12. This is because reporting a person’s age, like stating their sex, is not discriminatory and it would preclude fair comment on politicians, athletes, actors and others who might be argued to be past their prime”, for example.

That doesn’t mean older people are not protected under the Code and it certainly doesn’t give the press free rein to ‘bash’ older people.

To put this into a wider context, many groups who feel strongly about a particular issue raise concerns with us around what they perceive to be negative stereotypes portrayed in the media. To give an example on the other end of the spectrum, many are concerned about the media's perception of Millennials, and more generally perceptions that youth is equated with lack of experience. Interestingly, the Youth Media Agency and others made a similar submission for age to be included  during a recent Code review because of what it perceived to be negative stereotypes of younger people.

Striking a balance between the right to to freedom of speech vs the rights individuals and the protection of groups while still allowing for public debate is certainly challenging.

The press have written and campaigned on a number of issues for older people. These public interest stories – raising awareness about loneliness; holding politicians to account about the lack of hospital beds; campaigning against austerity cuts in social care – are incredibly important in raising awareness and holding government to account, but they are also challenging because they do, by their nature, raise some of the negative aspects associated with ageing. That said, there are lots of positive stories including digital inclusion and older people making a difference in their communities.

There’s certainly room for both sides of the story, and we'd welcome further research and discussion about this.