Complaint from the 'fetus' camp

Every now and then, GetReligion runs a post that allows readers to comment about their personal beliefs while also addressing core journalism issues. That doesn't happen very often, but sometimes you can do both. We had one of those posts the other day and I need to revisit the subject, because it's clear that something is going on out there in some important newsrooms on the whole "fetus" vs. "unborn child" or "baby" debate.

First, here's a key paragraph from my previous post. Then it will help if you dig into the comments.

When talking about these issues, "fetus" is the kind of term that is used by lawyers, legislators and scientists (usually on one side of the abortion debate). Meanwhile, ordinary people tend to say "child," "unborn child" or even "baby."

What is a journalist supposed to do? No matter what newsrooms decide, one side or the other is going to be ticked off.

In this earlier post, I focused on a New York Times story that included a mixture of these terms. I could just have easily focused on a Washington Post piece that ran about the same time. Here is the lede from this second story, which is -- this is important -- on a hard-news subject:

Performing surgery on babies with the most severe form of spina bifida when they are still in the womb doubles the chance that they will be able to walk, according to a federally funded study. ...

The study, which involved 158 mothers carrying babies with spina bifida, found that sealing up the defective spinal cords before they were born also significantly reduced the chances they would need a tube known as a shunt surgically implanted to drain fluid from their brains.

Yes, we're talking about multiple references to "babies" in a report about a news development in hardcore science. This journalistic development did not amuse the writer of a letter that the Post elected to publish, a letter focusing on what the author clearly believed was a troubling journalistic error in the story.

The headline says it all: " 'Babies,' only once they're born." Here is the entire letter as run by the Post:

The Feb. 10 article "Surgery can help babies with spina bifida" misused the word "baby" or "babies" to refer to a fetus in the womb at least five times, including the headline.

Since the article hardly ever used the correct noun "fetus," I wondered whether this was a deliberate editorial decision.

In trying to redefine fetuses as babies, The Post strayed into politically charged territory rather than simply reporting the facts.

Such views should be reserved for the opinion section of the paper.

Thus, science can solve the issue of when an unborn child is worthy of protection. In this view, debates about fetal viability do not even matter. Mere seconds before birth we're talking about a "fetus" and seconds later we're talking about a baby.

This is a serious issue. Newspapers have to find a way to quote real people and talk about their real issues and ordinary people rarely use the term "fetus." Is there a way to quote the language of the two sides when they use it? To be accurate and sensitive to the language used by ordinary people and the language of, well, some lawyers, some scientists and, yes, some activists?

So who out there in GetReligion reader land backs the writer of the letter to the Post editors? Who backs the approach taken in the Post news story? Keep this focused on journalism, again. Make your GetReligionistas proud.

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