The Spokesman-Review : interns

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Shefali: The Age Debate

While in the midst of writing a story for our "Today" section about women motorcyclists in the area, I realized I did not get the age of a main character in my article.

I called her immediately and I carefully slipped in the question most middle-age women dread to hear, "Oh so by the way, can I get your age please?" Her reply was a long awkward pause. Then she said, "No." This was irritating. I dealt with this issue at my first internship and I wasn't going to back down this time.

"Well I might not publish it, it's just a standard thing reporter's do," I said. She wasn't buying it--but I was really selling anything either. It's true, ever since I started journalism I was told to get a name and an age right off the bat. Asking this woman her age after my story was half written was already bad enough.

Apparently she wanted to keep her age hidden for 'social' reasons. But it got me thinking about a couple of different things: One- why are women reluctant to give their age? I've made a decision here and now that not matter how old I am I will always give my age. (Ask me that in a few years though so I remember) Two- Why DO reporters ask for age? I can understand the use of age in a news story--strictly factual. But many times, I slide age into a feature story and it's fine. Sometimes I don't put it in but I have it in any case (which was the argument I was trying to make for this woman). "Why do you need to know?" she asked. Well after some thought I finally have an answer--but I’m not to proud of it.

Age tells us something. Journalists are people-readers we observe, we write we talk, we get the information we need to make a story as honest and as telling as it can be. My favorite moments in an interview are when I ask a source about something they never told me; rather I picked up on it. A fishing photo on their desk, nails bitten, a scar. Details like this can sometimes (not always) get you somewhere. I think it was Don Fry, from the Poynter Institute who advised reporters to ask a question you know the answer to at the very beginning of an interview and while they are telling you their answer, write down what you see in their office, or what they are wearing or a scar you see on their hand. Because a tape recorder won't get any of that.

Well here's a better answer to the question on age. I just talked with Steven Buttry from the American Press Institute this afternoon and posed the same question to him on why we need age. He said that the rules of the game are changing. He recalled being told to get age when first reporting too, but then said sometimes it just wasn't needed. Buttry offered help though. He said that even without a numerical age, a reporter can put a person in a generation. Perhaps they have an 11-year old daughter or they told you what year they graduated college or high school in. It's still telling but without offending them. I can see the benefits of that.

But I'll still always tell people how old I am.


  • Hello Test Comment

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:51 PM  

  • Hello Test

    By Anonymous Shef2, at 1:52 PM  

  • Age would also seem to help people to picture who you're talking about. For instance if you say she's a 65 year old woman then I might add a little grey to her hair in my mind whereas if she's 11 years old maybe longer hair or a ponytail...I think age is a reference.

    By Blogger Us, at 2:24 PM  

  • How old are you? You always tell but I have not yet noticed it. My experience with news reporters (as opposed to those writing more subjective columns) that that they are pretty ademant in insisting that THEY are the reporter and THEY ask the questions. Not the other way around. But it sounds like you find some limited self-disclosure important. Why?

    By Anonymous David Brookbank, at 10:46 PM  

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