The Elderly Portrayed in the Italian Press

The Elderly Portrayed in the Italian Press

A study, carried out by myself at the Communications Department of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and entitled “The Figure of the Elderly in the Italian Press”, investigated the representation of the elderly within Italian daily papers.The main goal of the study was to confirm or disprove the general negative perception surrounding the elderly.

The research also had a practical purpose of providing useful data to associations that deal with the elderly from the perspective of active aging, i.e. associations with projects that go beyond welfare to embrace the human person as an integral whole and in relation to that most dear to him, primarily his family.

Through the systematic analysis of a sample of three Italian newspapers, Il Corriere della Sera, Avvenire and Il Messaggero, the author discovered significant (and at times surprising) results. On one hand, the findings confirm this general negative view towards the elderly; on the other hand, however, they strongly call upon media and society to change this perception.

For decades the progressive aging of population has been at the center of statistical surveys done by the most important international demographical institutions. There’s talk of the “gray tsunami”, that is the prediction that within the arch of only 50 years there will be a drastic increase in the number of elderly people in Western countries as they face a [now chronic] decline in birth rates. For example, the United Nations calculated that from 2009-2050, the number of elderly over the age of 60 would double, thereby jumping from 810 million to 2 billion elderly persons. And yet, this statistic does not appear to counterbalance a real culture of seniority, at least in Italy. Seniority, and moreover old age, is commonly treated as a period of life that doesn’t deserve too much consideration: a condition undoubtedly marked by fragility, physical difficulties, and weakness, in which suffering and illness is often involved, and at times, according to a utilitarian mentality, is enveloped by a guilty sense of being useless and unproductive, and seen as the cause of heavy economic burdens on society. Without denying some natural aspects, insisting upon these stereotypes and prejudices intensifies the lack of full rights of citizenship for the elderly.

Research: Approach and Analysis

The research was developed in two complementary areas. The first was the acquisition and exploration of texts for articles of interest and analysis of their explicit content. This phase allowed for the consideration of elderly persons according to presence in daily papers, positivity or negativity, image and treatment, etc. The second more rhetorical step focused on the implicit content of the texts, the study of frame, the anthropological and culture topoi (common places), and the social virtues that express the relational nature of the human person.

The papers were analyzed for a period of three months. A representative sample of articles was selected from a weeklong testing period that allowed for the identification of key words used in the definitive selection of texts. Irrelevant texts were those in which the news piece wasn’t about the elderly person or old age in itself, but about the fame or reputation of the person, independently of the age factor. After having discarded these sorts of texts, 121 articles were selected and analyzed according to a qualitative methodology.

Results

Out of 121 texts, 72 articles had the elderly in the spotlight, while 49 articles held the elderly as secondary figures in the story. It was thus verified that the topic was undoubtedly present in the daily papers, which had an average of one article per day among all three papers. In the general analysis, the majority of the articles identified were negative, with 62 to 52. In difference was notably greater when considering the texts with the elderly as the central figures: 47 to 25, making the number of negative articles almost doubled. Of the three papers analyzed, it turns out that Avvenire was the only paper to have more positive than negative articles, which can probably be explained as a fruit of a specific editorial choice.

A fact that is not surprising is that the majority of selected texts were found in the news reports and referred to the elderly as victims. However it was interesting to learn that the following more numerous group of articles portrayed the still active elderly, though the numbers were much lower. The first fact can be said to confirm the negativity of the articles portraying the fragility of the elderly, who are more prone to being targets of violence. The second fact seems to reverse that image, acting as a sort of counterbalance, though small as it may be. Moreover, emphasis was given to exceptional senior citizens over 100 years old: unique people who appear to exhibit their peculiarity in world marked by common fragility. Another important aspect should be brought to light: only five articles were dedicated to ill elderly and only one to forgotten elderly. Given that these issues are so relevant today, I consider the finding indicative of an informative lack.

In an effort to rise above the distinction between positive and negative articles, the research analyzed the image of the concrete elderly people from within the articles. This was the cause of great surprise because, even though there was a greater negative image of the elderly in the texts in which the elderly were central figures (35:31, negative to positive), the general analysis showed a substantial balance between positive and negative images (57 each). This result was made possible by the fact that some articles had an overall negative frame but painted the elderly in a positive light. In both cases, the most frequent positive image, also the majority, was the image of the elderly as a resource, followed by the elderly as the patrimony of society. The finding is quite extraordinary because it demonstrates how deep down there is fertile ground upon which we can base our reasons for an active commitment of the elderly in society. When the image is negative, the elderly then appears weak and defenseless, desperate, or a health or social problem.

The study of the frames pointed to a negative rather than a positive tendency. Moreover, the most frequent frames found (after the “celebratory” ones, by far the most popular, found in 23 articles) were also negative. This element perhaps contributes most on the general negative sensation surrounding the theme of the elderly. Besides the positivity/negativity of the article, what remains in the mind of the reader is the framing, the memory of something negative. The most popular frames are the following: decadence, with 11 texts, violence, with 9 texts, and a condemnation of grave situations, with 9 texts.

A rather shocking result that emerged in the study was that the elderly are presented more positively than negatively. This considerable finding elucidates the goodness of human relationships, and is therefore connected with the reality of social virtues. In the general analysis, 72 texts were found to have treated the elderly in a positive manner, and only 44 negatively, in which respect prevailed with 31 articles over lack of respect, with only 18 articles. At the same time, in the texts referring to the elderly as the key figures, the elderly person is treated in a positively in 64 texts (among which 26 treat them with respect), whereas only in four texts treat the elderly with feelings of compassion.

The study confirmed the presence of all the social virtues, with pietas as the most manifest, found 57 times in the articles, 31 of which were in its negative form. It was followed by gratitudine (gratitude or recognition), present 34 times in its perfected form and 16 times in its defective form. Summed up, the perfective forms of all the social virtues had an overall greater presence than the corresponding vices.

Conclusions

From a cultural point of view, the study revealed that indeed a utilitarian mentality occasionally emerged, traceable from some of the cultural common places and the contradiction of some natural topoi, especially in cases referring to euthanasia, suicide, abandonment, or even insults made against the elderly. Nevertheless, conditions for a cultural change were more favorable and easy to accomplish than one would think. Hidden beneath these negative articles was a tough criticism of serious and unjust realities. A cry has been made to reintroduce the elderly person as an active member of society, in the awareness that the population’s aging gives rise to challenges, and that this enlarged presence of the elderly in society should provoke questions about the future.