Representations of aging in German media during the Covid-19 pandemic

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the category of „age“ has increasingly become the focus of public debate in Germany. The media has often discussed older people as a vulnerable risk group in need of society’s protection. This is significant, as gerontological research has shown that how older people are portrayed in the media impacts how people implicitly and explicitly think and feel about (their own) old age.

How to shield the vulnerable

Eine alte Großmutter in einer Schutzmaske blickt aus dem Fenster, um sich selbst zu isolieren. Ältere Frau in Quarantäne zu Hause.
A typical headline as well as a typical photo theme during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Against this background, the IM/AGE-19 project investigates portrayals of old age in German political talk shows and online news portals during the Covid-19 pandemic:

Will the boom in positive, competence-oriented images (partly exaggerated) – as active and fit – of old age of the last decades continue? Or will there be a rollback of the image of older people as weak, vulnerable and in need of protection and assistance? Do older people themselves receive a ‚voice‘ in the public debate, or are they rather talked about?

The research project comprises two sub-studies:

In substudy I, we investigate the extent to which older people are invited as guests on political talk shows and what positions they take there.

Complementary to this, substudy II analyzes the visual representations (photos) of older people in journalistic articles about Covid-19 in online news portals. The methodological approach combines a frame analysis with quantitative content analysis. Linking substudies I and II allows to contrast the media self-representations of older people with external representations.

On a scientific level, the research project IM/AGE-19 aims to make an interdisciplinary contribution to the study of the socio-cultural constructions of old age in times of a historically exceptional situation. The analysis will focus on political talk shows and newspapers.  

On a social level, the goal of this study is to make forms of thematizing and staging of old age transparent for the public and media professionals, thus inviting them to self-reflect on their own perceptions of aging. By putting the supposed truth of one-sided, deficit-oriented images of older people up for debate, the project encourages reflection and counteracts the stigmatization of older people. A photo contest is planned for mid-2021 as well as a webinar for media professionals in spring 2022.

Commissioned by the Josef und Luise Kraft Foundation

The interdisciplinary project team of IM/AGE-19 comprises researchers from the fields of psychological ageing research, social gerontology and media sciences.

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Project members

co-principal investigator, project leader

Prof. Dr. Eva-Marie Kessler

Prof. Dr. habil. Eva-Marie Kessler is a psychotherapist and Professor of Gerontopsychology at the Medical School Berlin. Representations of old age images of old age – in individuals‘ minds and in the media – have been at the center of her research agenda for nearly two decades. Currently, she is a member of the Images of Aging: Via a Dynamic Life-span Model to New Perspectives for Research and Practice scientific network funded by the German Research Foundation. Based on her research and psychotherapeutic practice, Professor Kessler fears that the new “COVID ageism” will negatively impact older people’s mental health.

Profilbild von Prof. Dr. habil. Eva-Marie Kessler

co-principal investigator

Prof. Dr. Annette Franke

Prof. Dr. Annette Franke is Professor of Public Health, Social Gerontology and Methods and Concepts of Social Work at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg. Her research focuses on social inequality and heterogeneity in old age, health and transitions in the life course, distance caregiving and senior entrepreneurship. Professor Franke is convinced that age stereotypes are not conducive to productively coping with the pandemic.

Profilbild von Prof. Dr. Annette Franke

senior scientist

Dr. Janina Myrczik

Dr. Janina Myrczik is a sociologist and Research Associate at the Medical School Berlin. Her past research has focused on, for instance, distance caregiving and self-employment and aging. She is interested in how internalized images of aging interact with changing external structures. Dr. Myrczik would like to see perceptions and portrayals of aging becoming more diverse also during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Profilbild von Dr. Janina Myrczik

external project participant

Prof. Dr. Clemens Schwender 

Prof. Dr. Clemens Schwender is Lecturer for Media History and Media Analysis at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF. His research focuses on representations of old age in the media and age-related modes of reception. He is a member of the Gesellschaft, Altern, Medien [Society, Aging, Media] organization which aims to investigate and also foster the influence of media on later life. Professor Schwender is wondering how older people themselves perceive media’s staging of old age.

Profilbild von Prof. Dr. Clemens Schwender

external project participant, visiting researcher

Dr. Catherine Bowen

Dr. Catherine Bowen is an adult developmental psychologist and visiting researcher at the Department of Psychology, Medical School Berlin. She has been researching how individuals think and feel about old age and aging, where such images of aging come from and why they matter for over ten years. Like Professor Kessler, she is currently a member of Images of Aging: Via a Dynamic Life-span Model to New Perspectives for Research and Practice scientific network. Dr. Bowen sees real value in reflecting about the limitations of and opportunities for (one’s own) development across the entire adult life span. 

Profilbild von Prof. Dr. Annette Franke

Commissioned by:

Logo der Josef und Luise Kraft-Stiftung
Logo der Medical School Berlin GmbH