Why treat age and race differently in the news?

Two news stories last week, one about a 42-year-old nursing student running for homecoming queen and another about a 91 year old mayor swindling River Falls, Alabama, out of $201,000, got me thinking about the journalistic convention of including ages in stories. I turned to Paula Span, who writes the New York Times’ New Old Age blog and who referred me to colleague Dolores Barclay, whose 30 years at the Associated Press she figured would better equip her to explain the convention. 

“It isn’t ageist at all. It is just another essential fact to include about the subjects we cover. It’s part of the ‘who’ in reporting,” Barclay responded. “Age is often relevant to certain stories, as well. For example, if we write about a ‘senior citizen’ or ‘older person’ who takes her first sky dive, does the story have more impact if the subject is 70 or if she’s 99? Or if we’re profiling the accomplishments of a musician who has had an illustrious and amazing career, don’t we want to know how old he is? What if he’s only 24 but reading the story we might think he’s 60?”

OK, what if? Last week I happened to attend the dazzling U.S. and Carnegie Hall debut of South Korean classical guitarist Kyu-Hee Park. She could have been 13 or 23 years old, and I was itching to know. Twenty-seven, it turns out, which made the experience no less rapturous. It did make me wish that the itch were less persistent. Chronological age is a basic tool we use to categorize people and contextualize their accomplishments. It’s also a habit, and not such a good one. 

Obviously the age of the subject is integral to obituaries and to accounts of child prodigies and skydiving octogenarians. (How many of these annoying parachutists can there be, for god’s sake?) But its reflexive inclusion in other kinds of stories is troublesome. It reinforces the problematic notion that attitudes or achievements are tethered to chronological age. There are plenty of ways to clue readers into someone’s stage of life, whether it involves orthodonture or dentures. A little confusion could rattle a lot of assumptions about what’s “appropriate” at given stage of life, and would be just fine. Race is no longer an obligatory part of the “who” of a story; just the opposite, in fact. Why should age be different?

And why shouldn’t River Falls Mayor Mary Ella Hixon, whose ten-year sentence was commuted to five on probation, do some time? An attorney for the defense said that his clearly compos mentis client “was being taken advantage of.” “Had it not been a 91-year-old woman, I would have stood on my head to make sure she went to prison,” the Covington County District Attorney told the Associated Press. Apparently citizens in the know had been reluctant to blow the whistle, he continued, “for fear of being ostracized or because it was a proverbial ‘little old lady.’” The only non-ageist position in there is the acknowledgement that Hixon was powerful enough to silence her critics. 

A 42-year-old homecoming queen, on the other hand?  Now that’s news!

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