Ghost in the Stylebook III: New York Times keeps searching

Baby1thumb_2This 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, 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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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.

  • Kathleen

    Interesting story. My best friend was tweleve weeks pregnant while we were attending Mass at the shrine in D.C. In the middle of the Mass she began to slightly hemmorage. We rushed out of Mass and to the nearest hospital just down the road from the shrine. The doctor performed and ultrasound and there, at twelve weeks, was this baby kicking and rolling around. At one point it seemed to look right at the camera. This was long before ultrasounds became so sophisticated, and at that moment my best friend stated that every pregnant woman should see an ultrasound before they make the decision to abort.

    Maybe we should all carry 4d ultrasound photos at January’s MFL. I know many of my formerly pro-choice friends who have changed their minds regarding choice because of the 4d photos that appeared on the cover of Time (I think it was time but it might have been Newsweek).

  • Emily

    “When will the people who lobby against abortion realize that this form of technology is on their side?”

    They already do, by and large. It’s why state-level prolife groups have put on the front burner legislation requiring that women in abortion clinics have the option to look at a sonogram. It’s why pro-life pregnancy counseling centers raise money to install ultrasound machines and hire trained sonogram techs to show women what their baby looks like.

  • Josh Narins

    Actually, fetus is incorrect in the earliest stages, when it is a blastocyst.

    Somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of women conceive, but then don’t give birth.

    Swing open the jails wide, boys, I want every single one of them investigated. It’s manslaughter, every miscarriage is manslaughter, and I want charges pressed!

    Woo Hoo! Stop Women’s Rights Now! Too bad we ever gave them the vote!



  • Charlie

    The stylebooks might settle on the use of fetus in the case of an unwanted pregnancy and baby where parents hope to deliver a healthy child. We effectively live with that duality now, since whether it is a “baby” or not is legally up to the mother and no one else. She may be too young to vote, but she’s never too young to terminate her offspring, with or without parental consent.

    I am woman, hear me roar!

  • Domenico Bettinelli Jr.

    Certainly we’ve been on the story at Catholic World Report. We had this article* in the May 04 issue. It includes information on how ultrasounds at crisis pregnancy centers have resulted in more women electing to keep the baby.


  • Christina

    Josh, you might want to cool off before you post. You don’t exacly come off as somebody who is giving a lot of thought, but rather as somebody who is spitting out what you’ve been taught to say in response to certain things. Then people will blow you off rather than actually hear whatever it is you want to say.

  • Dino

    Yeah, Josh. You’re not doing yourself any favors, here.

  • Meep

    Yeah, Josh, because every death is a homicide, doncha know. I don’t think that argument is very convincing – try working on something a little more serious and not so easily dismissed.

    In any case, I got one of those 4D scan things a couple weeks ago – really neat. I didn’t realize they were already out there… the doctor told me he had the machine for a couple years now. I always crack up when I get a look at what the kid is doing in there – sucking her thumb, waving her hands, grimacing, whatever. You can see some of this on the sonograms, just at lower resolution and you see the bones much better than anything else (and the beating heart) – the doctor will point to a splotch and say “those are the kidneys”. At least with the 4D, you can tell what you’re looking at.

  • tmatt

    “At least with the 4D, you can tell what you’re looking at.”

    Or WHO you are looking at.

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