The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Journos: Never call someone ‘elderly’

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Jim Romenesko catches the headline edit of the week. It comes from NPR’s Web site.

The original: “For Elderly Midwife, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old”

After a complaint from that “elderly midwife” and from the writer of the article, Ina Jaffe, who was not involved in the headline’s generation, that headline was changed to: “For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old”

In a column on this revision, NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos writes that “experts” on what to call older folks in journalism disagree on a lot. “But ‘elderly’ was decidedly taboo,” notes Schumacher-Matos. Just sample what the omniscient Associated Press stylebook has to say on the matter:

elderly Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story.
It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.
If the intent is to show that an individual’s faculties have deteriorated, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it. Use age when available and appropriate.
Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizen.

Those rules raise an interesting problem: What if you alight on a “home for the elderly,” then proceed to interview a resident of that home? Are you, via the associative property, calling the interviewee “elderly”? Would that draw fire from your ombudsman?

The AP stylebook, columns by ombudsmen, angry letters from readers — on one level, the practice of journalism is a protracted lesson in the many, many ways your work can offend others. In the case of NPR’s headline change, the fixed version amps up specificity and amps down offense. Good combo there.