Improving Coverage of Older People in Australian News

Dr TJ Thomson, Prof Evonne Miller, Prof Sarah Holland-Batt, A/Prof Jen Seevinck, and Mr Sam Regi 

The Context

As journalists, we have a responsibility to ‘boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience’ and ‘seek sources whose voices we seldom hear’. One of these is older people, who comprised in 2022 about one-third of Australian voters but are under-represented in Australian news coverage 

When older people are represented in the news, journalists tend to depict them in stereotypical, shallow, or disempowering ways. Our team reviewed more than 500 aged-care-related news stories and depictions from 2018-2021 across 13 Australian outlets and identified several trends about how journalists tend to cover ageing and older people. 

Australian journalists tended to show older people in their coverage from behind, as silhouettes, or as disembodied pairs of hands. Photo by Glenn Hunt

The Method

The study compared both national and regional news coverage on the topic of aged care in Australia during the period from October 2018 through 11 June, 2021. It includes coverage from 13 outlets overall, including three national news outlets (the ABC, the Australian, and the Guardian Australia) and 10 regional news outlets (the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, the Canberra Times, The Age, the West Australian, the Brisbane Times, the Courier Mail, The Advertiser, The Mercury, and The Northern Territory News). In this way, the study achieved representation from each Australian state/territory, and a diversity of media ownership models. 

Regarding media ownership, the sample includes six outlets owned by News Corp (the most dominant of Australia’s media players), three outlets owned by Nine, one outlet owned by Seven West Media, one outlet owned by Australian Community Media, one outlet owned by the Guardian Media Group, and one outlet that is publicly owned. 

Articles were selected based on a keyword search that consisted of the following three sets of keywords: ‘Royal Commission’ and ‘aged care’, ‘home care’, and ‘elder abuse’. The lead author consulted a nationally leading Australian aged care advocate to determine these keywords and to ensure that the coverage would be inclusive of both residential care (which accounts for about two-thirds of the sector) and home care settings and would include all coverage related to the RC and related issues. 

The study examined more than 500 images and articles over a three-year period to evaluate how Australian journalists covered the topics of ageing and aged care. Screenshot by Dr TJ Thomson

A More Considered Approach (Part I)

The below nine considerations can help you ponder your and your outlet’s coverage of older people in order to disrupt these patterns and create more respectful, representative, and engaging news about older people in the future: 

1. How much are you showing older people as frail, isolated, or lonely? News coverage can shape how older people see themselves as well as how the broader population sees them. Is your coverage representative of the connections older people have to family members, friends, and carers, or does it portray them as isolated or lonely?

2. How much are you focusing on the financial or political implications of an ageing population entering aged care? Do you do this at the expense of stories about the social implications for individuals, families and communities?

3. How prevalent are older people’s views, images, and stories in your coverage? Is this representative of your audience’s demographics? 

4. Does your coverage humanise older people and cultivate empathy and compassion toward them, or does it present them as depersonalised? Our ability to empathise with older people can be hindered or prevented entirely when we see them not as individuals with unique stories and histories but rather as statistics or depersonalised figures. 

This image, of 102-year-old Eileen Kramer performing in a dance project in 2017, is an example of how older people can be shown in a more empowering way. Still from a video by Eileen Kramer

A More Considered Approach (Part II)

5. Does your coverage draw on disembodied visual clichés, such as clasped hands, mobility aids, or pills being dispensed? Using specific imagery—such as footage of older people interacting with family members or carers, or participating in activities or hobbies, as well as specific details such as their favourite possessions and family photographs—is more engaging and helps humanise older people and enhance empathy for them. 

6. How egalitarian are your sources? Do you tend to over-rely on elite sources—such as peak bodies, politicians, businesspeople, or experts—at the expense of ordinary people in your coverage of older people and associated topics? Have you sought the perspectives of older people, their carers, nurses, family members and advocates? 

7. How inclusive is your coverage of compounded identities on the margins? For example, does it include older people who are also queer or Indigenous? These groups tend to be under-represented in general news and doubly so when multiple marginalised identities, like age and Indigeneity, are combined. 

8. How generic are your representations? About 20 percent of the imagery accompanying aged-care related coverage from 2018-21 was stock photography. Without concrete context and specificity, such stock images depersonalise the issues of ageing and aged care, and make it appear less important or serious than it is. 

9. How much are you relying on the ‘consonance’ news value and reinforcing existing stereotypes rather than disrupting them? For example, are you perpetuating the myth that older people aren’t users of digital technology or are you disrupting this?