No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money

Samuel Johnson

Jul 23, 2015

An age old question

Why papers report people's ages

Until recently it was standard in newspaper reports to include the ages of those mentioned in a story.

For example - “Mrs Brooks, 34, said: `I’ve never been so shocked in my life’ ’’; or “Paramedics who were called to the scene found Mr Charles Barker, 55, lying injured in the road’’.

It was often difficult for a reporter to get someone – particularly women – to divulge their ages but, nevertheless, it was a detail editors insisted on. In my experience this was something that some of general public were bewildered and even offended by. Why, they wondered, did we ask such intrusive questions? More recently, the practice has attracted the charge of ageism and it seems to be in decline.

However, ages were included for a good reason and that reason still holds. I would argue that age is the second most important thing we want to know about an unseen stranger, after their sex.

Consider the following sentence: “A quarrel between neighbours has escalated with the occupant of 32 Coronation Street accusing the person in number 34 of making their life a misery with late night partying – a charge denied by the neighbour.’’

Lacks something does it not?

Better is: “A quarrel between neighbours has escalated with Mr Marvyn Gaye of 32 Coronation Street accusing Mrs Gladys Knight in number 34 of making his life a misery with late night partying – a charge denied by Mrs Knight.’’

However, does it not add considerably to the story to have the following further information: “A quarrel between neighbours has escalated with Mr Marvyn Gaye, 18, of 32 Coronation Street accusing Mrs Gladys Knight, in number 34 of making his life a misery with late night partying – a charge denied by Mrs Knight, 83.’’

Age completes our picture of a person and not only adds colour but is often relevant.

But the age must be specific. The beauty of giving an age in years is that it is objective and not a matter of opinion. Pity and woe-betide the reporter who attaches labels such as “middle-aged’’, “elderly’’ or “old’’ – these are labels a lot of people would fiercely deny. But they cannot argue with their age in years.