Ghost in the stylebook: Death of an unborn child

Baby1thumb_1At first glance, it was a simple hard-news lead for a follow-up story on the deadly path of the remnants of hurricane Ivan into the misty blue ridges of Western North Carolina. Reporters Kristin Collins, Michael Biesecker, Josh Shaffer and Andrea Weigl of the Raleigh News and Observer wrote:

The remnants of Hurricane Ivan roiled rivers and ripped the sides from North Carolina mountains Friday, killing at least eight people — two of them children.

The storm brought winds of up to 60 mph and 3 to 12 inches of rain to the state’s mountainous western tip, which was still sodden from Frances’ floods last week. Trees toppled, rivers rushed over their banks and mountainsides unleashed landslides. The storm left a trail of disaster in 16 counties. …

In North Carolina, the devastation was worst in Macon County, where a toddler, an unborn child and two adults died when a wall of water smashed a community of 30 homes to bits.

Note the presence of the words “unborn child,” rather than the usual newsroom choice — “fetus.”

This wording made it into the Associated Press report that went out nationwide, where the significance of this writing and editing decision was noticed by a friend of this blog, Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet.com and, on occasion, National Public Radio.

Apart from the tragedy, isn’t it noteable that he lists “four people” killed, when one is, not a fetus, but “an unborn child”? Is this going to be the new style sheet? … Did the victim get elevated into the human family circle only because he or she is dead? Is this an after-effect of the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner?

Whatever the cause, it’s a sign that something is stirring in our unconscious, or under-conscience. Sooner or later, we’ll have to face the horrifying fact that over 40 million “people” have died. Whenever that realization dawns, it will begin with little changes in the way we talk about it — little signs like these.

Here are the key sentences as published on the CNN website, which would hardly qualify as a media outlet that would lean to the conservative side on such a hot social issue. The information is the same, yet the material was re-written somewhat, meaning that the word choice passed through another reporter and-or copyeditor.

Eight deaths blamed on remnants of the storm in North Carolina were in the southwestern part of the state. … Four people were killed Friday in Macon County, in the southwest corner of the state, said Rob Brisley with the state Office of Emergency Management. A toddler, an unborn child and two adults died when a wall of water smashed a community of 30 homes to bits.

This is a copyediting style question that we have noted here before at GetReligion.org — when a similar style decision was made (believe it or not) at the New York Times.

This is a hard issue for journalists who want to be fair to partisans on both sides of the issue. Perhaps this small but symbolic action is, somehow, linked to the Peterson case. Perhaps it is linked to the growing use 4D ultrasound technology.

Then again, perhaps it is a concession to reality, to the words that people use in real life. This is not politics. It is a matter of simple humanity. Faced with this kind of tragedy, loved ones and public servants do not tell journalists “we lost a fetus.”

No, they lost the baby. They lost a child, an “unborn child.” It is awkward or even cruel to say anything else.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.philocrites.com Philocrites

    The links to the news stories don’t seem to work, or I’d try to uncover this answer from the source: Was one of the adults who died the pregnant mother? It would seem simple enough to note the relationships if the deaths were in the same family. But perhaps the mother miscarried and survived? In either case, I find it somewhat odd to note the death of the unborn child apart from any mention of the mother. (Another ghost, perhaps?)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I’ve been having some trouble with Typepad (in addition to the art woes) lately linked to the links. The links work in my browser and then I paste them into the Typepad software and then something happens — an extra space or something — and they don’t work. It must be linked to writing in Microsoft Word.

    Anyway, I tweaked and I think they work now. I added some Frederica commentary links, too.

  • Katherine

    I read the article in the paper. The toddler was the child of the mother who lost the baby. The mother was crushed in the wreckage of her home, miscarried and they had to amputate her leg to get her free.

  • http://www.xanga.com/branthansen Brant

    I don’t think this style — using “unborn child” in this case — marks a departure from the secular orthodoxy, even if it departs from the stylebook.

    You’ll note one hard-and-fast, unwritten rule: “Unborn child” is correct when describing a child the mother apparently wants, and “fetus” for the others.

    This is seldom violated in “family studies” texts, for example. The chapter on birth control will describe the fetus at 20 weeks, while the chapter on child-raising will refer to the unborn child at 20 weeks.

    “Choice” means the mother may choose to confer personhood.


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