When is a heartbeat not a heartbeat? When NPR (briefly) calls it 'sounds from the fetus'

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

You know the answer to that one, don't you? In a way, that old puzzler reminds me of questions your GetReligionistas face from time to time. I am thinking, to be precise, about emails in which readers send us items claiming that this or that newsroom has committed this or that atrocity, yet there is no URL provided and, when push comes to shove, there is no way to know if that news report ever contained the words or phrases quoted by the offended readers.

You see, it's so easy to change the content of online news and there is no common standard for digital corrections. (At GetReligion, when non-troll readers -- especially journalists -- leave comments noting typos and clear errors of fact we change the text, but we thank them and leave their comments live at the end of repaired articles.)

Thank goodness there are people who know how to use the "screen grab" (or screen shot) function in their computer browsers. I say this because of a remarkable "Heartbeat Bill" fix in a story at National Public Radio, which led to a piece by Bre Payton at The Federalist, as well as cyberspace shouts from readers.

Before we get to the NPR case study -- backed by a screenshot -- let me remind readers why stories about abortion show up so often at GetReligion. First, these public-square debates always involve activists from religious groups. Second, it's virtually impossible for activists on either side to describe their beliefs without raising moral and theological questions, as well as questions about science. For decades, abortion-coverage issues (click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by reporter David Shaw) have played a crucial role in discussions of both media bias and religion-news coverage.

So what is the "Heartbeat Bill" in Ohio? Let's look at how The New York Times started a story on this topic, to get a sample of the language being used. Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON -- Gov. John Kasich of Ohio on Tuesday signed into law a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but vetoed a far more restrictive measure that would have barred abortions after a fetal heartbeat was detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
In reaching the split decision on the two bans, adopted last week by the Ohio legislature, Mr. Kasich said the so-called heartbeat bill was “clearly contrary to the Supreme Court’s current rulings on abortion.” He called the 20-week ban the “best, most legally sound and sustainable approach to protecting the sanctity of human life.”

Note the clear language about "a fetal heartbeat."

Now, let's go to the NPR piece, care of materials assembled at The Federalist. Let's start with a crucial screen shot.


Note the "sounds from the fetus" language in the lede of the story. Here is the top of the Peyton piece:

As I drove past NPR’s building in Washington DC Tuesday night, the words scrolling across the neon ticker caught my attention: “Republican governor decided the time-limit measure is more likely to withstand legal challenges than a separate bill tied to sounds from the fetus,” it read.
Surely this descriptor -- “bill tied to sounds from the fetus” -- isn’t referencing the “heartbeat bill” Ohio Gov. John Kasich vetoed Tuesday, which limits abortion to roughly the first six weeks of a pregnancy, or before an unborn baby’s heartbeat can be detected via an ultrasound. NPR couldn’t possibly be so cowardly as to describe baby’s heartbeat inside the womb as “sounds from the fetus,” right?

Now, I guess you could say that the sound of an unborn child's heart can accurately be called "sounds from the fetus." However, I don't think that many doctors, when using modern technology to examine pregnant women, joyfully say to them, "Now, let's listen to some sounds from your fetus!"

In terms of science, "heartbeat" is the accurate term. Does that answer all the ethical, legal, moral and religious questions raised in this debate? No. But it does provide accurate information about the arguments being used by people involved in this debate in Ohio (and other states, as well, sooner or later).

But here is the technical/journalistic problem in this online age.

Right now, if you click on the crucial NPR link in The Federalist feature, you are sent to a news report -- the headline is still, "Ohio Gov. Kasich Signs 20-Week Abortion Limit, Rejects 'Heartbeat Bill' " -- that starts like this:

Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a 20-week gestation limit for abortions into law Tuesday, while separately vetoing a measure that would have banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable.

As you can see, that screen shot of the original story is rather important.

What happened to the "sounds from the fetus" language? There is no correction at the bottom of the report, but, then again, this isn't really a correction. Is it?

This raised a basic journalistic question for me: What is the name of this piece of legislation? 

If you go to the website for the 131st assembly of the Ohio legislature, it appears that the short title for House Bill 69 is "Prohibits abortion if detectable heartbeat." That is certainly more quotable than the long, official title, which is: 

To amend sections 2317.56, 2919.171, 2919.19, 2919.191, 2919.192, 2919.193, and 4731.22; to amend, for the purpose of adopting new section numbers as indicated in parentheses, sections 2919.191 (2919.192), 2919.192 (2919.194), and 2919.193 (2919.198); and to enact new sections 2919.191 and 2919.193 and sections 2919.195, 2919.196, 2919.197, 2919.199, 2919.1910, and 2919.1911 of the Revised Code to generally prohibit an abortion of an unborn human individual with a detectable heartbeat and to create the Joint Legislative Committee on Adoption Promotion and Support.

One could refer to this, accurately, as the scare-quoted "Heartbeat Bill." But one does not need scare quotes to use the detectable heartbeat language. That's in the bill and that represents the actual language being used by activists on one side of the debate.

That leads us to one other journalistic question. It would also be good for journalists to quote the language being used by activists who are opposed to this legislation, because they play a crucial and valid role in this debate. Their views should be accurately reported, including the language they use to describe the name and contents of the bill bill.

By any chance, have opponents of this legislation been using the phrase "sounds from the fetus"? 

Just asking.

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