Ghost in the Stylebook III: New York Times keeps searching

This is one of many stories that I intended to write about last week or even earlier, but let me bring it up here on a quiet non-hurricane weekend. As regulars to the blog know, I have been highly interested in recent stories in the New York Times, the Associated Press and elsewhere, in which reporters seemed to be tiptoeing around a tense area in journalistic style -- the rule about referring to an unborn child as a "fetus." In part, this journalistic question seems to be rooted in coverage of a leap forward in technology -- those amazing 4D-imaging machines now being used virtually everywhere. This digital window is having an impact. It is hard to refer to these images as pictures of fetuses.

Recently, this issue came up again in the newspaper of record. This time, reporter Sam Lubell -- in a story called "The Womb as Photo Studio" -- carefully walked the edge of the razor and followed the letter of the stylebook law. Thus, here is the lead:

It's a rite of passage for many expectant parents: baby's first ultrasound. The fuzzy images of the fetus, produced during an examination in an obstetrician's office, are prized by couples, passed around proudly among friends and relatives.

Now, trying to capitalize on this phenomenon, a number of companies are selling elective ultrasounds that have little to do with neonatal health. The services, often in small offices or shopping malls, amount to fetal photo studios and use newer 3-D ultrasound technology to produce more realistic images than conventional machines.

Another tricky issue soon follows, as Lubell mentions that one of the most common uses of the technology is to determine the gender of the unborn child. Might this be linked to the controversial issue of gender-selection abortion? Perhaps that is an issue for another story.

When dealing with third-person paraphrases, the story stays with the medically correct "fetus." The problem is that the story also quotes real, live people. Thus, there is a somewhat awkward dance of journalistic vocabulary. For example, note this reference to the emotional impact of the new technology:

"Women love it," said Matt Evans, a lawyer, who started his company, Baby Insight (baby -insight.com), about a year and a half ago. "They get to see their baby and have an emotional experience with their baby."

Or there was this quotation from new mother Shirlesa Glaspie, of Lanham, Md., who said the experience has been both frightening and revelatory.

"He's yawning, he sticks his tongue out, he smiles," she said. "It gives you a realization of what's going on when your stomach is moving around and bouncing around."

And so forth and so on, swinging back and forth between the voices of people and the style of journalism. The tension is real and there is no easy way around it. But this points to a larger story: When will the people who lobby against abortion realize that this form of technology is on their side? Is the future of pro-life work linked to ultrasounds, rather than picket signs? Might be a story hidden in this style issue.

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