For years, it was one of the most painful, divisive journalism questions faced by reporters and editors, a question that they couldn’t look up in the Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of most mainstream newsrooms.
The question: When is an unborn child an “unborn child” or a “baby”? When should reporters use the supposedly neutral term “fetus”?
Here is the top of a recent news story that serves as a perfect, and tragic, example of this journalism issue:
A grieving widower has revealed why he shared photos of his dead wife and unborn daughter after they were killed by an allegedly drunk driver.
Krystil Kincaid was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Alvalynn, when their car was struck on a California highway on Sept. 9. Her heartbroken husband, Zach, who lives in San Jacinto, Calif., decided he wanted the world to see the unsettling images of the 29-year-old mother and their little girl lying in a coffin together at their wake.
That’s a tragic example of this journalism issue.
Here is another new case study, drawn from current celebrity clickbait news. After all, it’s hard for journalists to ignore a royal baby bump.
In this case, the New York Times headline proclaims: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Announce She’s Pregnant.” The lede is where we see the “problem.”
LONDON — Another royal baby is on the way.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are expecting a child in the spring, Kensington Palace announced. … The announcement comes five months after the royal couple, riding a wave of popularity both in Britain and abroad, married at Windsor Castle near London. …
Prince Harry, 34, a grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, and Ms. Markle, 37, are widely seen as likable and approachable, and she brought elements to the royal family that would have been unthinkable not so long ago: She is American, a former actress, biracial, divorced and a self-described feminist.
Then again, Markle has also served as a spokesperson for the international Christian charity World Vision.
Readers can see the basic journalism question, once again, a question that raises all kinds of issues about science, religion, politics, personal values, etc.
Long ago, I asked an editor how to handle this issue in a story about a ministry linked to abortion. The problem was that I had people on one side of the issue — in direct quotes — using the term “fetus” while activists on the other side were saying “baby” or “unborn child.”
There was no way to avoid the clash in the direct quotes — since that tension was part of the story. However, here was the hard journalism question: What term should I use in paraphrased quotations? After all, I didn’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth that they would find offensive, even in a paraphrase.
The editor’s advice: In stories about abortion, we use the term “fetus” since the parents have chosen not to give birth. But when covering a story in which parents welcome the pregnancy we use the word “baby” or the phrase “unborn child.”
The bottom line: News style appears to depend on the beliefs of the parents — the mother in particular. Journalists are describing a state of mind.
As you would expect, this stance raises big questions for those who oppose abortion. For example: Are journalists defining a new human life in terms of science or beliefs? Does the unborn child exist, as a reality in DNA and science? This, of course, has been a fiercely contested issue in American and international law for decades.
Thus, the royal baby bump news drew this response, in an editorial at LifeSiteNews.com (a conservative website that is currently back on Twitter, after briefly being banned for what was considered objectionable content):
LONDON, October 17, 2018 … Nobody, including pro-abortion advocates, would dare to say the Duchess of Sussex, otherwise known as Meghan Markle, is pregnant with a royal “fetus.”
Everybody, including mainstream media, knows and admits and even rejoices that she’s having a “baby.” She's not having a “product of conception,” or a “blob of tissue,” or a “clump of cells.”
How refreshing to hear a spokesman for the Royal Family telling UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph: "Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very pleased to announce that The Duchess of Sussex is expecting a baby in the Spring of 2019.”
So far the spokesman has not been excoriated by Britain’s powerful abortion lobby for using the word “baby.”
After seeing the news out of London, I consulted my most up-to-date AP manual to see if, in recent years, this style issue had been addressed. Once again, the journalism bible was silent.
However, our own Bobby Ross, Jr., has access to a subscription to the ever-evolving AP style website and he provided me with this candid reference.
Read carefully and, in particular, note the pivotal use of the word “appropriate.”
embryo, fetus, unborn baby, unborn child
While the terms are essentially interchangeable in many common uses, each has become politicized by the abortion debate even in uses not involving abortion. Anti-abortion advocates say fetus devalues a human life; abortion-rights supporters argue unborn child or baby equate termination of a pregnancy with murder by emphasizing the fetus's humanity.
Write clearly and sensitively, using any of the terms when appropriate:
Fetus, which refers to the stage in human development from the eighth week of pregnancy to birth, is preferred in many cases, including almost all scientific and medical uses: The virus can be disastrous to a fetus. The lawsuit alleges harm to a fetus that prosecutors claim was viable. The research was conducted on fetal tissue.
In scientific uses referring to the first seven weeks of human development after conception, use embryo.
The context or tone of a story can allow for unborn baby or child in cases where fetus could seem clinical or cold: Weiss said her love for her unborn baby was the strongest feeling she had ever felt. The expectant mother lost her baby in the seventh month of pregnancy.
Indeed. But who gets to define what is “appropriate”?