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Ageism: Media Influences and Older Americans

Mainstream American society continues to stereotype Older Americans as communicated through the media. This presents itself a developing problem not only for Older Americans but for the mainstream population as well.

Mainstream American society often views the aging population in reference to stereotypes communicated through the media. This form of imagery often distorts our ability to perceive others in the real world. A number of investigators now believe that mass media is responsible for shaping our attitude of older Americans and the aging process (Bazzini, McIntosh, Smith, Cook & Harris, 1997; Bell, 1992; Fillmer, 1984; Fine, Mortimer, & Roberts, 1990; Fisher, 1992; Larson, Kubey, Colletti, 1989).

The persuasive capabilities of the media are powerful. Scientific reports and a growing body of literature suggest that American society learns to form negative associations of older persons through the use of media forms (Bazzini, McIntosh, Smith, Cook & Harris, 1997; Bell, 1992; Fillmer, 1984; Fine, Mortimer, & Roberts, 1990; Fisher, 1992; Larson, Kubey, Colletti, 1989). Bazzini, et al. (1997) analyzed the way in which motion pictures portray older Americans. They discovered that older people were portrayed more negatively than younger people. Moreover, older women were subject to age discrimination more so than men (Bazzini, et al., 1997; Harrison, 1991). Fisher (1992) designed an intersession course to help future sociologists analyze popular commercial images of older people (Fisher, 1992).

Fisher’s results were promising: combining commercial films with related reading materials such as The Aging Family; Elderly Parents, Grandparents and Siblings proved beneficial in helping his students to make distinctions between media biases and true behavior patterns of older Americans. In recent years, the media have projected more positive images toward older Americans. Bell (1992) examined five prime-time television programs in which older people were cast as central characters.

These television shows included The Golden Girls, Murder She Wrote, In the Heat of the Night, Matlock, and Jake and the Fatman. According to Bell, previous media portrayals of older people appearing “comical, stubborn, eccentric, and foolish” were replaced with more progressive images. These images allow older people to appear “powerful, affluent, active, admired, and sexy.” Although Bell gave favorable reviews on what he hypothesized to be a discourse in aging on television, he cautioned researchers that demographics of older Americans on television were non-representative of the aging population and should be further investigated.

Print media and other visual forms have been found to influence our perception of the aging population (Fillmer, 1984; Nussbaum & Robinson, 1984; Rosenwasser, McBride, Brantley, & Ginsburg, 1986; Starr and Weiner, 1993). Magazines’ portrayal of older persons has reinforced negative biases held by society for many years (Nussbaum & Robinson, 1984). In a pictorial study examining differentiation ability of children, Rosenwasser, McBride, Brantley and Ginsburg (1983) reported well-defined negative bias in children’s attitudes toward older people. Conversely, in a more recent study, Weber et al.(1996) found positive results when exposing children to apperception conditions. In another study, the response pattern of children in grades four through six was measured while exposed to pictures of adults of varying ages (Fillmer, 1984).

Fillmer found ambiguous evidence of age stereotyping among children suggesting the need for additional studies. Finally, in a literature review, Starr and Weiner (1993) clarified some misconceptions in the use of pictorial measurement techniques (e.g., PAAM). They reminded clinical researchers and others of its proven value for training undergraduates and graduates in gerontology courses. The average television viewing time for pre-adolescents is four hours per day (Larson, Kubey, & Colletti, 1989). By the time children reach full adolescence, they will have viewed as much as 22,000 hours of television (Bell, 1992; Fillmer, 1984). With the aging population representing only 4 percent of this media type (in reality, older people make up 15 percent of the total population), investigators feel that the absence of older persons on television combined with a lack of knowledge of aging cause people to form negative associations with older Americans.

Although television’s persuasion capabilities are powerful, visual and other media resources begin to take precedence early in adolescence (Larson, Kubey, & Colletti, 1989). Today, approximately 33 percent of all high school seniors report reading magazines, while another 20 percent report reading non-schoolbooks daily. American children spend more than eight hours a day exposed to some form of social medium, whether its uses are primary or a secondary source of activity. Newspapers, magazines, book readings, pictures and a host of other media forms contribute to the development of ageist behavior.

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