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communication, research
No more wrinkly hands

Have you seen the recent Alzheimer’s Society high impact TV advert?* It’s dramatic! And at the point where it changes from disquietingly bleak to rousingly positive (don’t want to spoil it) the voiceover suddenly announces:

“It’s set to be the UK’s biggest killer”

For a while now we’ve been involved in a research project that examines how newspapers report dementia stories – and in the light of the recent Alzheimer’s Society’s publicity campaign, our study seems like it might gain a lot of interest! Our team of four, two linguists and two health researchers, have been pondering how dementia stories are linguistically and visually portrayed in the popular press. We initially considered studying the media reporting of pharmaceutical breakthrough/false-dawn stories, or absurd scare stories along the lines of how Alzheimer’s may be infectious. But the “biggest killer” story gave fascinating insights into the communication of dementia issues, and in particualr how the press wish people to perceive dementia.

The story originated from Office of National Statistics who published a report on the causes of death in the United Kingdom. They reported that dementia had overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death. The statistician who featured in the report, Elizabeth McLaren (@StatsLiz if you’re on twitter), explained that the increase in proportion of deaths due to dementia was a) partly due to people living longer, b) improved diagnosis, and c) the updating of international rules of classifying cause of death.

This was not quite – to put it mildly – how the newspapers reported on the story. Their take on the report was laced with emotive and unremittingly bleak pronouncements. For example, dementia was variously described as ‘deadly’ (Daily Mail), a disease that ‘claimed’ (Independent) and ‘devastated’ (The Sun) lives, and ‘inflicted’ a death ‘toll’ (Mirror). Metaphor featured commonly – as it often does in the media reporting of health and illness matters – with dementia being described as an unstoppable marauding disease, an active agent that attacks ‘victims’ – all told, a linguistic style of representation that exaggerated, we argue, the scale and impact of dementia on the British population.

Of course newspapers (particularly the tabloids) will always deploy lurid and dramatic language in order to shift copy, but what is the impact on people who may be coming to terms with a diagnosis of dementia? Does this type of language encourage the public, in local communities to engage with the issue – to become, say, a dementia friend – or does it induce sympathy and an ‘avoid-if-possible’ reaction? The good news story implicit in the ONS report – that by improving awareness of dementia and acknowledging the disease on the death certificate is a result of tackling ageism and stigma – is a minor detail of these news reports, and indeed is often overlooked altogether.

To some extent newspapers justify the pathos and drama by weaving this into a call for additional funding for dementia research, and highlighting the relative lack of funding given in comparison with other diseases. The Sun put made the point most forcibly, “The Sun calls on the Government and drugs firms to put the maximum resources available into combating dementia . . . public spending on dementia trails far behind other terminal illnesses”.

Finally we investigated the images that the newspapers used alongside their stories in order to add impact and thereby influence the way readers respond to their take on dementia. Most of these photographs, taken form image banks, feature older people evidently in the process of ‘suffering dementia’. These were staged photographs – images that feature actors rather actual people with dementia, and are principally designed, as it were, to act out what the media stereotypically believe dementia to be about: suffering, strife, pity – and little else (certainly no mention of managing or living well with dementia).

There were also recurring stock images of wrinkly and disembodied hands, reductive pictures denoting old age and infirmity – images again designed to evoke dread and pity. These images of hands are pervasive – not just confined to the popular press but appearing more widely in various media contexts – glibly trotted out whenever text producers wish to cement the relationship between old age and infirmity and/or disease. Given their ubiquity, there have been a number of calls for media outlets to think carefully about reproducing such crassly reductive and stereotypical images (see for example the campaign on twitter: #nomorewrinklyhands! (by Sara Livadeas @saralivadeas and others), but for the popular press they glibly continue to be used as a convenient visual means of encapsulating the infirmity and pathology of ageing.

I wrote this blog after we presented our findings at an academic conference on medical humanities. I tweeted a few comments, but thought that we should also make these topics more available to a public audience. I’ll follow up with a link to our article when published. You can read more about the conference here: Reading Bodies, Writing Minds: Mental Health in the Medical Humanities https://readingbodies2017.wordpress.com/  (or search for @MedHums2017 on twitter).


 * The Alzheimer’s Society advert can viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjnHcyI0XPU


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