The Best of…Age-beat Journalism Brings Issues Affecting Seniors to Light

         Published January 28, 2002, Pawtucket Times

          Some people ritually read the sports or business sections, browse the stock listings, or even glance at the comics.  But a growing number of  middle-aged and senior readers are turning to the print or electric media for the latest info on aging.

          With the graying of America, news organizations are creating the age beat, where journalists cover various aspects of aging, including lifestyles, health care, politics, ethics and even economics.  A newly released national survey published in the San Francisco-based Age Beat, a newsletter disseminated to 700 journalists who cover aging, reflects this growing trend.

        Out of 580 non-random surveys sent to Age Beat readers, 152 responses were received. “This was better than a one-in-four response rate,” states Paul Kleyman, editor of Aging Today, the newspaper of the American Society of Aging and national coordinator of the Journalist Exchange on Aging.  The group was started in 1993.

        According to Kleyman, the third Age Beat survey findings indicated about 60 daily newspapers around the United States have a reporter partly assigned to the coverage of aging; 16 use a full-time reporter to cover the issue; and 24 newspapers use columnists.

       Although the findings of three surveys of age -beat reporters reflect a small growth of coverage in aging, it has been steady, Kleyman says.  While the age beat does not have economic clout in newsrooms (it is difficult to sell advertising around aging), this steady growth has occurred over the last 10 years through two economic slumps.

      There are more journalists covering the aging beat than last year, according to the survey report.

      The slow-but-steady growth of the age beat in journalism is a result of journalists – and their parents -aging, Kleyman noted. “Some of these aging journalists are finding this a very important area and have taken it upon themselves to begin to cover these issues.

       “There were more stories about aging because they are important in people’s lives- including those of reporters and editors,” Kleyman observed.  Thus, more than 90 percent of the survey respondents say that they now have direct personal experiences with the issues of aging, both personally or in their family, he said.

       Many of the respondents became interested in covering aging after they had to help their aging parents find a nursing home or move into a retirement community, Kleyman said.  “In doing this, they learned there is a huge amount of information they had to dig out and learn – [information] most of the public is unaware of.

       “Today’s journalists believe their personal experiences do not affect their objectivity in writing stories,” noted Kleyman.  Experience gives them both the perspective and information they need, but they still can approach each story with balance, he added.

       Kleyman said that journalists on the age beat will care about the issues enough to follow them over a longer period, and they will develop more sources and a greater depth of knowledge and understanding.

       “This is why they will write stories that are more technically accurate and factual,” he said.

       According to the survey, age-beat reporters who are devoting more of their time and energy to covering aging issues are generally veteran reporters.  On average, the respondents have more than 20 years of professional experience as journalists.

      Ageism occurs in the news media, says Kleyman.

      ‘”There is an atitude that all stories must have focus on medical and health care,” he said.  “This ageism centers on an attitude that getting older is getting sicker and becoming a burden on your family.  This is not so.”

      The Age Beat survey also found that, consistently across the board, 50 percent of the stories being weritten by age-beat reporters releate to health care and medical issues.  The other 50 percent cover different aspects of senior life.

      “Aging is about everything that people experience in their older years,” says Kleyman. “Stories range from sex and intimacy to housing, to income issues, to crrime, even to issues surrounding older drivers.”

       Finall, the survey revealed a growing percentage of reporters getting more requests from their editors and producers to tie their stories into the baby boomer generation, whose members are in their late 40s to mid-50s.  However, about two thirds of the reporters written by the respondents covered issues that affected those age 65 and over.

      The survey results were clear.  “Baby boomers are interesting, but the stories on those 65 and older stories are those that reporters feel must be told to readers,” Kleyman said.

      Like my colleagues on the age beat, this columnist will continue to bring you the latest, most informative coverage of aging issues you need to know about — stay tuned.

      Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues for the Pawtucket Times.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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