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Ageing gracefully: the role of media in stigmatising aged care

Older people are being dehumanised in the media – and it isn’t fair.

Ageing and aged care is too often represented in a negative light, according to researchers from the Queensland University of Technology. They have found skewed representation of older people in the media, and call for them to be portrayed in a more nuanced, relatable and human way.

“Most of us get important messages about ageing and aged care, like how older people should behave and be treated, from the news media. For younger people, these representations give them a view to their own future,” says lead author Dr TJ Thomson, from QUT’s School of Communication and chief investigator with the Digital Media Research Centre.

This study, published in Media International Australia, focuses on amplifying the voices from the Royal Commission into Aged Care, and includes visuals from across 13 Australian news outlets covering the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, from its announcement in 2018 through to May 2021, four weeks after the government’s response. Images from articles containing the keywords “Royal Commission”, “aged care”, “home care” and “elder abuse” were compiled and analysed.

“The Royal Commission was the result of the skyrocketing number and severity of issues in Australian aged care, but compared to other Royal Commissions, media coverage was relatively muted, and public awareness and engagement with aged care issues uneven,” says Thomson.

Of the final pool of 583 images that were analysed, fewer than half (42.4%) were of older people, while politicians and public figures occupied almost a third (31%) of the sample. In the images featuring older people, 70% were pictured alone.

These images may have created a negative view of older people’s lives in aged care: in a 2019-2020 survey completed by 10,518 members of the Australian’ public, most respondents believed that residents were lonely, unhappy and had no control over their lives.

“The low numbers of depictions featuring older people with others – either with their family members (6.4%) or with aged care workers (4.5%) – underscores how isolated and marginalised this group is, both physically and socially from the mainstream of Australian society and from the carers on whom they depend for their everyday needs,” says Thomson.

While the focus of this literature review was on media representation of elder abuse and the Royal Commission across three years of coverage, only five images depicted abuse directly, or highlighted the injuries sustained. This underscores the loss of impact of these stories, where 19% of the articles used generic stock photography of unidentifiable people, adding to the trivialisation of the elderly and the issues that they may face.

While 90% of the politicians were identifiable, 67.5% of images of older people were “disembodied” or de-personalised, mostly consisting of close-up photos of hands and wrinkled skin (60%), silhouettes (30%), or mid-length shots with the heads cropped off (10%).

“One of the goals of our study is to reduce the stigma attached to discussing aged care. For the news media, this can be done by humanising individuals, challenging the affected individuals’ marginalised classification, and cultivating empathy and compassion,” says Thomson. “However, disembodied images of wrinkled hands and hands on walkers, for example, abounded in the sample. Instead of portraying older people in these well-worn ways, highlighting surprising stories of connection, engagement, and interaction would serve the outlets’ audiences better.

“An example of this can be seen in a photo of 105-year-old dancer Eileen Kramer, taken by Sue Healey and published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Kramer is not shown passively sitting and staring out a window; rather, she is actively engaged in her passions even at an advanced age.”

From this research, a guide for media has been produced, to help promote more respectful, representative and engaging news about older people. It can be accessed online.

“The role of journalism in informing the public and policy agenda is a powerful one, with potential impact to improve quality of life for all Australians – now and in our aged future,” says Thomson. “We hope the results of the study inform media practice and can guide news workers seeking to represent this demographic with dignity, nuance and depth.”

Elderly, aged care, aging, elder abuse
Composite image of the disembodied deidentified images of older people that are not doing them any justice. Credit: Thomson et al. 2022/QUT
Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah holds a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honours degree in palaeontology from Flinders University.

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