New York Times on the death of an unborn child

New York Times on the death of an unborn child August 7, 2013

You might recall that the New York Times told readers Kermit Gosnell was on trial for killing fetuses rather than newborns. There was a similar problem at USA Today. We noted when a reporter for a different outlet apologized for calling a newborn child a fetus.

So the problems with journalists using “fetus” to describe children even after they born make the old debates on whether it’s appropriate to use the term in stories about children prior to their birth seem quaint. But yesterday the New York Times came in for some criticism over stilted “fetal” language to describe a tragic death of a woman and her unborn child. From “Falling Tree Shatters Lives and Dreams of a Family“:

The Dikov family keeps an album of photos that document the love story of their son, Aleksander, and his wife, Yingyi Li-Dikov. On each page, they beam, always hugging. In one, Ms. Li-Dikov kneels over a heart drawn in the sand, the initials A and Y at its center.

And on another page is a black-and-white photo: the hazy sonogram of the daughter they were expecting in the fall.

There will be no pictures of mother and child. Ms. Li-Dikov, 30, was killed on Sunday when a giant tree toppled in Kissena Park in Queens, shattering the bench she was resting on and killing her. The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.

Emphasis mine. The caption to the accompanying photo reads:

Yingyi Li-Dikov, 30, and the fetus she was carrying died.

Fetus is a Latin term meaning “young one” but most people refer to their unborn children as unborn children or babies. Tmatt had a great post recently about the tension between the language that abortion rights activists and media types use and the language that people in the real world use when talking about pregnancy:

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

The New York Times‘ use of fetal language for this young victim struck observers as odd. As RealClearPolitics editor Carl Cannon wrote on Twitter:

Can’t a newspaper be pro-choice without resorting to this? “The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.”

It’s certainly true that the language we use to describe a human being says much about whether we value that human being. So I don’t want to downplay the important debates about whether clinical language is appropriate to use when describing those young vulnerable humans who reside in their mothers’ wombs. And yet my main critique is that this is just clunky news writing. We shouldn’t go out of our way to avoid language used universally, particularly in service of an unrelated political agenda. What do you think?

Image of a baby fetus shower invitation via Shutterstock.

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  • Carlh

    The dark side of me smirks about the linguistic knots that seem to be the inevitable result of the abortion advocates’ careful avoidance of the language people just naturally use in such contexts. My better angel wonders (and hopes), however, whether such use of the supposedly sanitized “fetus” in a context such as this might not result in an “oh my” moment for someone–or at least begin to knock off some of the clinical neutrality of a word that has become such a workhorse for those trying to avoid calling attention to the other very human realities of abortion that don’t nicely fit with the pro-choice narratives (which, I acknowledge, have their own very human realities, selective though they may be).

  • Julia B

    The story is an odd mix. “Baby clothes” are mentioned, as is “daughter”. And the very last line quotes the bereived husband and father speaking of the “baby” he was looking forward to fathering. To me, that’s why that one mention of “fetus” seems so out of place.

    As the author says in her tweets that are linked – both terms are accurate. Very true. But I will never forget the guffawing I set off when, at age 8, I referred to “flatus” when I was at camp. The daughter of a gastroenterologist, I had never heard of a “fart” and was using the correct medical term. After that humiliation, just to be on the safe side, I went out of my way to learn other terms like “pooping” instead of the correct “defecation”.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I wonder–do journalism schools have their students look at the novels of George Orwell? Do they ever look at his insightful comments about the use, misuse, and abuse of language as ways to control people’s thinking?

  • Dingo Dongo

    How does this story relate to the media not getting religion?

    • MAE

      GetReligion should create a post answering this question once and for all. Then mollie could link to it and wouldn’t have to answer this question every. single. time.

      I, for one, view abortion as a religiously loaded issue and very much appreciate the analysis of coverage in this venue.

      • Donalbain

        EVERYTHING is a religiously loaded issue. People care about third world aid because of their religious beliefs. People care about the need to raise the minimum wage because of their religious beliefs. People care about the need to regulate banks and other financial institutions because of their religious beliefs. But they are not Right Wing Republican Talking Points and so have no place on this right wing Republican blog.

      • Dingo Dongo

        Even supposing that abortion is a religiously-loaded issue, I still don’t see how this story in any way relates to the media not getting religion.

    • Donalbain

      It doesn’t. But right wing republican talking points count as religion for some people.

  • Philmonomer

    And yet my main critique is that this is
    just clunky news writing. We shouldn’t go out of our way to avoid
    language used universally, particularly in service of an unrelated
    political agenda. What do you think?

    I think that if the Times had used the word “baby” here, you would have had a blog post about how inconsistent they are.

    • MollieZHemingway

      I might have pointed out the inconsistency.

      Quite a testament to abortion advocacy, though, that the Times would choose to be more consistent in the fetus direction rather than the “unborn child” direction.

  • Ross Harrell

    As an ardent lover of language I relish watching writers tie themselves in knots trying to convey the right subtext in their word choices. I remember a story of a reporter who was so worried about using the right terms that they referred to blacks in Africa as African African-Americans. How about the re-pronunciation of Niger to ‘Nee-zhair’ to avoid phonic resemblance to a certain N-word. (Niger Innis, call home).

  • Donalbain

    A fetus /?fi?t?s/, also spelled foetus, fœtus, faetus, or fætus, is a developing mammal or other viviparous vertebrate after the embryonic stage and before birth.

    Not even Get Right Wing Republican Talking Points, but Get Right Wing Republican Specific Use Of Language