It happened twice in 2007 and again this past February: A journalist asked my age for a news item. No matter that youth is irrelevant in a meritocracy. Age has emerged as one of those nervy, reflexive questions that only third graders and professional scribblers are comfortable asking.
Maybe I wouldn't be as sensitive if I hadn't hit the big "39" (give or take). Nevertheless, except for public figures, shouldn't age be ancillary or even a quasi-zone of privacy?
A Fourth Estate axiom on the appropriateness of asking or citing an individual's age likely exists, but it's not the sort of question a writer casually raises with Crosscut Editor Chuck Taylor, 77? or Publisher David Brewster, eightysomething.
Better to check with the not-getting-any-younger reporter class.
"We typically don't ask a person's age unless it has some value to the reader," said Mike Seely, 33, managing editor for the Seattle Weekly. "Like if how old they are runs counter to what people believe is the appropriate age for a profession or way of life, for instance."
Seely's response contrasts slightly with practices at the Tacoma News Tribune. Longtime columnist and reporter Peter Callaghan, boyish but nevertheless 50, said in an e-mail, "Generally we ask for people's ages. If they don't want to give it, we don't check with the Department of Licensing or anything. I don't think it is a hard rule or style issue."
It is a piece of info that is of some interest in certain types of stories. Certainly a profile will include age. Crime stories generally do. It places the person generationally. In community journalism where a lot of people know each other, they want to know if it is the father or the son or whether that's the Bob Smith they went to school with. Old people don't think young people have anything worthwhile to say, and young people don't care what old people say.
KPLU's Austin Jenkins, 34, who also serves as a Crosscut scribe, observed that age references make little sense with radio.
"I don't think we ever do the age thing unless it's relevant to the story. But that's mainly because it would sound odd: 'Peter Jackson, age 39, said ...'"
"That said, I wonder where and why the practice developed. I'm not even sure most newspapers do it anymore."
"I, for the record, am going to be 35 in August," Jenkins noted in his e-mail. "And I wish I could put the brakes on time!"
Alas, Brother Jenkins, them brakes are indeed broke.
True enough, I may be a wee consumed by issues of mortality. When a friend celebrates a birthday, I always raise my cup of aquavit like a pre-battle Viking and quote from Ernest Becker's seminal The Denial of Death.
"The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else," Becker wrote more than thirty years ago. "It is a mainspring of human activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man."
It's this kind of hopeful patter that boosts my appeal at funerals and other celebrations.
Mike Henderson, 60, a UW Journalism professor, Crosscut contributor, and former Everett Herald columnist, offered a cogent, meditative reply to my question. "Only if age is germane," he said.
Henderson turned 60 on March 4, so belated happy birthday, Mike. Statistically, an otherwise healthy sixty-year-old, white, U.S. male should live another 15.2 years, with at least thirty months or more of relative lucidity. God willing.
Regrettably, Henderson seems to exhibit some classic Becker-ish death-denial traits, noting that J-Lo, at age 38, just gave birth to twins and that Hal Holbrook was nominated for an oscar this year at age 82. Even more disturbing and denial-ish, Henderson claims to write as if he's only "58 1/2."
A good excuse to review the written record and confirm with the Department of Licensing.
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