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Ageism in Media: Screens and Speed Conspire Against the Aged

Mal Fletcher
Posted 11 January 2011
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Whether it is institutional ageism, or more an informal bias against the aged, a preoccupation with youthfulness is one of the less desirable corollaries of our increasingly visual culture.

It also reflects our preoccupation with speed; the dissemination of data without the proper interpretation of same. Ours is an age obsessed with basic knowledge at the expense of wisdom.

A former presenter for BBC TV’s Countryfile programme, Miriam O'Reilly, today won her employment tribunal hearing against the BBC on the grounds of ageism. She had been removed from her position when the programme shifted to a prime-time slot in 2009 and replaced by younger personnel.

Before her expulsion, suggestions had been made by producers that it might be ‘time for Botox’ to stamp out her wrinkles, especially in the age of high definition TV.

She believed she was the victim of age discrimination. The employment tribunal members obviously agreed.

After her victory, Ms O’Reilly said that the outcome had ‘implications for all broadcasters’. We can but hope so.

Now, in the interests of fairness, I happen to be the same age as Ms O’Reilly – 53 years to be precise. I don’t consider myself to be ‘aged’, not by a long shot. In fact, in some other industries, this is the period of life where experience is most valued and celebrated.

Yet the number of such industries seems to be shrinking and the visual media sector happens to be the most visible – no pun intended – when it comes to shutting the door on its most experienced contributors.

Studies in the mid 1980s revealed that for the first time children in the USA were learning more from pictures than text. In wider Western culture, this had not been the case since before the invention of the printing press and the advent of universal education.

Since the 1980s, the situation has been exacerbated by the spread of personal computers, the growth of the internet and the explosion of mobile media. Whilst all involve communication via text, greater speed and bandwidth has made visual communication more attractive.

According to an Ofcom report a short while back, the average British child will spend 900 hours per year in school, 1200 hours with their family and 2000 hours interacting with screens of one form or another.

Young people don’t simply use digital equipment, they think digitally. For them, screens are authority windows. The information that really matters to them is information they absorb from screens, on mobile phones, computers and, less so, televisions.

Digital technology is bringing some exciting breakthroughs, but it is pushing us toward visual communication in a way that often deprives us of context.

As the BBC’s Malcolm Muggeridge, the Paxman of his day, once famously observed, ‘The camera always lies.’ The very act of pointing a camera at something forces the viewer to look in that direction, thus providing an edited version of reality.

As a result the camera can lead us to believe that a shallow person is deep and vice-versa. Or that someone whose skill extends no further than smiling and reading an autocue is somehow an authority on the events of our time and their meaning.

The latter phenomenon is highlighted today by the fact that we want our information delivered instantly. We don’t care to have things deliberated upon for too long. We want to know things now.

It’s as if speed was its own reward and taking in vast amounts of information was more important than knowing what we should do with it.

This means there’s less time for reflection or processing, or deciding how singular events might fit into a larger continuum. As it happens, that is what older people do best. Their level of life experience allows them to better interpret events and facts, adding value to the changes we see.

A conspiracy of ubiquitous screens and super short clips only half watched, denies middle-aged and older people the opportunity of demonstrating their unique wares.

Of course, there are more young people alive today than older people. On one level it probably shouldn’t surprise us that younger people are more visible in our media. Young audiences, after all, will want to look at others who look like them and have similar life experiences.

Even for older viewers, the thinking goes, if all it takes to deliver a message is the ability to read or recite lines and smile in the right way, why shouldn’t they want to hear them from someone who looks good – that is, wrinkle-free?

Yet more than a third of British people are aged over fifty. Nowhere near a third of programming is fronted by people in that bracket.

The problem is even more evident in the US than in Britain. There, the phrase ‘eye-candy’ is used by TV execs to describe the dominant attribute of many a news personality. (Even the word ‘personality’ ought to tip us off to what’s going on here.)

Watch FOX News for just a few minutes and you’re left wondering where Rupert Murdoch got his predilection for thirty-something blondes.

Whether or not we like to admit it on this side of the pond, US attitudes do have an impact on global markets. They will continue to do so for as long as our transatlantic cousins are the dominant exporters of movies and TV and internet products.

In the UK there are, of course, some highly gifted middle-aged people in the news arena, especially political reporters. Yet there are hardly any more senior people involved in field reporting and even fewer seated in a presenter’s chair.

Outside of news, we sometimes see people over sixty popping up as guest chairpersons on comedy quiz programmes – but often then only to provide the butt of younger people’s gags.

In the less age-antipathetic medium of radio, however, the most popular quizzes are fronted by middle-aged or older people.

In the TV documentary genre, older people will sometimes feature as commentators in programmes presented by younger faces. Some may get their own programmes, but most often only those drawn from the cloistered world of academia.

On the whole, academics are notoriously poor communicators. This is either because they spend most of their time speaking to students for whom their subject is already somewhat familiar or, worse, trying to impress their learned peers.

Yes, there are academics who perform brilliantly on TV – Simon Scharma comes to mind – yet they invariably do less well when moved beyond a specific sphere of lifelong learning.

The poet Robert Browning said that the last of life is the best of life. Yet when most of us look at the loneliness and the physical if not psychological diminishment that comes with old age, we’d give almost anything to escape it.

Perhaps this is part of the reason we don’t want to watch older faces on TV. Or perhaps it is because we’ve associated the meaning of life with holding down a job, paying the mortgage and feeding, housing and schooling a family. When these tasks are complete, what contribution is their worth making?

In eastern cultures, of course, there is often a far greater respect for the aged and what can be learned from them. Yet commentators in these regions have noted how even this is changing as these cultures align ever more closely with Western mores as depicted in the media.

In the West, life expectancy is growing at the same time as respect for age is diminishing. The average life expectancy in Sweden and Australia is just over 80 years; in Germany, Finland and the UK it is just over 78 years. Most of us in the developed world probably consider a long life to be somewhere between 85 and 90 years. 

Our pre-disposition against the aged and in favour of the young is fed in part by the consumerist marketing machine and by a culture of celebrity that mostly worships youthfulness.

In the eyes of some older people, this general inclinationhas been transformed into an active discrimination, which we know as ageism. 

In some arenas, this is more than a benign and subtle bias; it constitutes an active block to opportunities.

In the end, media values reflect and reinforce deeper community values.

‘If ageism is to be stamped out,’ said Miriam O’Reilly, ‘broadcasters must start offering a more honest portrayal of our society to their viewers.’

She added: ‘I don't think having wrinkles is offensive.’ She is right. In fact, wrinkles ought to be worn as a badge of honour, as a mark of survival if not wisdom.

What's your view? Whether you work in media or not, is institutionalised ageism alive and well in your industry?

What’s your view?

Is institutional ageism a growing problem in your industry?



Keywords: bbc ageism | ageism in media | tv ageism | ageism in tv | ageism in the bbc | miriam o'reilly ageism case

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