Staff Writer

March 19, 2024 (Updated )

Age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Yet, in 2021, research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that 55 per cent of adults agreed the UK is ageist.

The media is a powerful player when it comes to promoting — and challenging — long-held attitudes and opinions. So, how might it have influenced age-based prejudice? And, more importantly, what role can it have in empowering older and younger generations in ways that don’t pit them against each other?

In the latest instalment in our ‘How To Report’ series, we delve into the often overlooked identifying factor of age — and how to report stories involving age responsibly.

How Ageist Stereotypes Are Portrayed In The Media

“[The media] lumps groups of older people together into one big homogeneous group,” says Niall Ryan. He’s the campaign manager at the Centre for Ageing Better (CAB) and points to phrases such as “bed blockers” being used in health and social care stories, as well as framing older people as frail, in poor health, or a burden on the systems.

He’s also concerned about the media’s tendency to stoke generational conflict and how that shapes ageist attitudes. “This idea that a group of people — boomers — has flourished, and now other generations are struggling because of that, it just does not reflect the reality of living in Britain now. We know over two million pensioners are living in poverty,” he explains.

Similarly, portraying younger generations as lazy and entitledsnowflakes” can stoke contention.

Journo Resources
“The first step of making change is for people to go from a position of having absolutely no question whatsoever that they're doing the right thing and thinking nothing of it, to thinking: ‘Oh, is this right? Is this something I need to think a little bit more carefully about?”
Charlotte Dewar, Chief Executive of IPSO

Ageism is a huge problem across the globe — but especially in the UK. A 2021 study at the University of Singapore looked into language use about older age in online newspapers and magazines, assessing 7,000 websites across 20 countries. Selecting three synonyms: “aged”, “elderly”, and “old people”, it compiled the top 300 neighbouring words for each. After rating each word on a positivity scale from 1 to 5 (e.g. “frail” would be very negative, and “wise” very positive), the UK’s ageist score was proven to be the highest.

But it’s not just about age, stresses Niall: “It can compound the discrimination that you [already] face, a classic case being women’s ageing.”

Just think about the relentless reports we see about how female celebrities are “unrecognisable” years later or without makeup, or who fail to meet the standards of “ageing gracefully”.

He also highlights the need for more research on the intersectional impact of ageism, particularly on marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ communities.

Is ‘Youngism’ Really A Thing?

But before we delve further, it’s worth a pause to ask if it’s just older people we should be talking about when it comes to ageism. Is there also a conversation we should be having about younger people too?

While there’s less research readily available — a quick search of ‘ageism‘ and ‘youngism‘ on Google Scholar shows a vast difference in results — one 2023 study did look at the experiences of young adults in the UK, as well as highlighting a lack of previous academic research on the subject.

Through four weekly surveys, participants recorded how often they experienced ageism. More than 75 per cent said they’d experienced some form of ageism across the full timeframe, with more than a quarter saying it happened at least once a week.

Lack of respect, patronising language, and making assumptions about intelligence and competence were the most common manifestations. Articles framing young people as difficult and overly sensitive, fragile, and even bad at ageing, reflect such (often subconscious) narratives. The study itself notes how “casually maligning the youth” dates back centuries.

The How To Report Series

Journalists have a responsibility to report on subjects and sensitive social topics in a manner that ensures dignity and respect. Our ‘How To Report‘ delves deeper, drawing on lived experience expertise and academic research to come up with easily actionable tips to improve your reporting.

Read the full archive here, or jump into guides about:


The trans community;


Sex workers;

Rape and sexual assault;

Eating disorders.

While it explores ageism directed towards individuals, researchers emphasise the wide-reaching consequences of collectively harmful attitudes about young people.

For example, several pandemic narratives portrayed young people as rule-breakers — something highlighted by Huddersfield University research. The project found young people felt either completely excluded from the media coverage, covered only in an education context, or represented negatively. It recommended the industry employ more young people in journalistic roles, celebrate their personal stories, and increase representation of age and background.

So, When Is Age Relevant?

It is often drilled into journalists to obtain as much demographic information as possible, including age and familial roles — but do we always question their relevance?

It’s something Niall sees often in the media: “Sometimes age can be used in a story when it is not relevant, but also terms like ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather’ can be used in media reporting where it is completely irrelevant.”

IPSO, the independent press regulator which enforces the Editors’ Code of Practice, has grappled with the issue directly. For example, an accuracy complaint was submitted about MailOnline about a headline which read: “Greedy grandmother, 66, who stole £175,000 from her bosses […] is jailed for more than three years”. The woman in question was not, in fact, a grandmother.

For Charlotte Dewar, the organisation’s chief executive, the broader question relates to whether (and when) age can be used as a non-discriminatory identifier. She explains: “One of the first press complaints I ever dealt with was  from a member of the public who happened to share quite an unusual name with a criminal defendant.” The complainant suggested the local story implied they were involved with the crime. The publication’s defence, however, noted the complainant was not the same age as the story detailed.

When covering stories, journalists should regularly ask themselves about the context in which they are referring to somebody’s age. Often, it might not be relevant, but in other cases, like the reporting above, it might be necessary.

Journo Resources
“It is a strange one because it is a bias that gets deprioritised. Even though age is something that will affect all of us, hopefully, we will all get old. It’s a prejudice against our future selves effectively.”
Niall Ryan, Campaign Manager at the Centre for Ageing Better

While CAB has worked with IPSO to provide external media guidelines for reporting on ageing and older age, it continues to lobby for its inclusion in the code, which is subject to a formal review process every three years. Niall says it would ensure references to age were relevant and appropriate — highlighting how rife ageist reporting is. Seeing as age is one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act, CAB views age as a significant omission. “It means that there are no standards the press has to adhere to when it comes to reporting on age at all,” he adds.

Age remains outside the scope of the code for now, but Charlotte says their work in the area is ongoing. “The first step of making change is for people to go from a position of having absolutely no question whatsoever that they’re doing the right thing and thinking nothing of it, to thinking: ‘Oh, is this right? Is this something I need to think a little bit more carefully about?’”

In simply raising awareness of and discussing ageism, journalists do have the power to consciously contribute to a culture of change.

IMPRESS is the other major press regulator in the UK, set up in the wake of the Levenson Inquiry and the phone-hacking scandal. Unlike IPSO, it does mention age in Clause Four of its Standards Code, whcih oversees discrimination.

The clause, which has three sub-divisions states that “publishers must not make prejudical or derogatory reference to anyone based on age” — in the same way as it treats disability, gender identity, pregnancy, and race, to name but a few.

However, the second part of this clause — which talks about when characteristics should and shouldn’t be mentioned — doesn’t mention age. It reads: “Publishers must not refer to a person’s disability, health, gender reassignment or identity, pregnancy, race, religion or sexual orientation unless this characteristic is relevant to the story.”

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Charlotte Dewar (L) and Niall Ryan (R).

Niall says while CAB welcomes the Code’s inclusion of age, it views the secondary omission as contradictory and feels the code could go further: “It basically means you can make an irrelevant reference to someone’s age in an article, but not a derogatory one,” he says.

Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana is the CEO of Impress. Explaining the omission to Journo Resouces, she says the second part of the clause seeks to address how characteristics are sometimes used in a subtly discriminatory way: “The ones that reflect that more sort of insidious or pernicious type of injecting identity into stories, where it is not irrelevant, but it is signposted.”She also clarifies that any direct discrimination of a group based on age is covered through the rest of the clause’s subsections.

Lexie adds that while Impress has not seen evidence of age-based discrimination in the context of 4.2, Kirkconnell-Kawana stresses it is very open to receiving such evidence — and that she would like to see more work done to identify the public interest behind some stories.

Best Practice For Journalists And Organisations

But, putting codes aside — what practical things should we be doing as journalists to better our reporting? For Lexie, it’s about asking yourself whether each and every story you write empowers its subject, or removes agency.

This is underpinned by choosing the right words — Niall recommends using neutral terms, “calling people an ‘older adult’, ‘older person’, or ‘people later in life [and] not using jokes or cliches, [such as] calling someone an ‘old hag’, or a ‘codger’, or a ‘geezer’.”

He also advises sense-checking for compassionate ageism — for example, calling someone a ‘dear’ or ‘young at heart’ can be infantilising and patronising. You can see a comprehensive list of terms in CAB’s media guidelines — but as a general rule, always question terms and associations.

What Can I Do To Write About Age Responsibly As A Journalist?

• Question the relevance of including a person’s age. Does it add context to the story, or is it included because it’s presumed to be a favoured practice?

• Be conscious while writing and editing work. The first step is to consciously reframe age-related language, so consider regular sense-checking to avoid unintentional discrimination.

• Often, age-related language is included to undermine the subject of a story, so ask yourself if the wording empowers the subject or removes their agency.

• Be conscious of unintentionally encouraging intergenerational conflict with language — this is most common when using ‘boomer’ vs. ‘millennial’ or ‘Gen Z’ tropes. Writing about intergenerational stories can help to negate such negative rhetoric.

• Make sure that corresponding imagery on articles does not reinforce any harmful or internalised age-related stereotypes — the lives of older people are not linked to frailty. The Centre for Ageing Better has an extensive image library which you can look at here.

And, while it might seem like we see it everywhere, Niall advises refraining from encouraging intergenerational conflict with their commentary. He explains: “Metaphors, like ‘demographic cliff’ or ‘silver tsunami’ [are problematic, it’s] this idea that it is a demographic time bomb because we have an ageing population — all those kinds of boomer versus millennial tropes.”

Similarly, he warns of lumping people together as one homogenous group — neither older nor younger people can accurately be explained through stereotypes and assumptions.

Solutions stories that detail intergenerational relationships help counter these tropes — and be a rich source of inspiration. For example, stories about younger and older people living together, and generations working together move away from the resource scarcity mindset and more towards ideas of solidarity.

A screenshot of an article on The Times with a headline reading: What happened when a 35-year-old and 85-year-old shared a house?
A example of an intergenerational piece in The Times. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

Lastly, Niall highlights the importance of imagery and ensuring pictures do not reinforce harmful and internalised stereotypes — like the photograph of clasped wrinkly hands in this BBC News piece.

Ask yourself how often you’ve seen a picture like this — which doesn’t accurately represent the lives of older people and can feel dehumanising. “Images should be positive but realistic,” he says. “You just want to reflect real life like you would at any age.”

But the recommendations above aren’t just about avoiding mistakes — news organisations have a real opportunity to create meaningful change by focusing on good coverage.

And the job gets easier when you have a wide range of people within your organisation, so it’s worth auditing your own hiring processes and workplaces for barriers to entry. “We know mixed-age teams do better,” agrees Niall.

As with most things, though, balance is paramount, and helping tell stories that connect society and give people a voice — whatever age — should remain at the heart of what we do as journalists.

Niall concludes: “It is a strange one because it is a bias that gets deprioritised. Even though age is something that will affect all of us — hopefully, we will all get old. It’s a prejudice against our future selves effectively.”

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by the SPA in 2018.

She was a BBC Sport Kick-Off Reporter in 2019 and had co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying for the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.

Header image courtesy of Centre for Ageing Better