February 20, 2003

INSENSIBLE:

Fetus or baby? (Christine Chinlund, 2/17/2003, Boston Globe)
THE GLOBE WAS technically correct when it referred to the youngest shooting victim in the Feb. 5 MBTA Orange Line tragedy as a ''fetus.'' But sometimes you can be technically correct and wrong at the same time.This was one of those times.

The facts: On the night of Feb. 5, Hawa Adama Barry, in the ninth month of pregnancy, was shot in the abdomen during a stand-off between two groups of young men on the T.

Early reports from authorities suggested that the baby died in the womb. Thus, the Globe's headline the next day read: ''Passenger shot, her fetus dies as men clash on T.'' Other media outlets had similar accounts but used ''unborn baby'' rather than ''fetus.''

Readers were quick to object to ''fetus.'' A few echoed the abortion-related debate about when life begins, but most argued that the use of such a clinical word to describe an almost full-term baby made the Globe look silly and insensitive. [...]

While I agree with critics who say ''fetus'' was not the best word choice for this story, I don't agree its use had anything to do with political correctness or the abortion debate. Some pretty impartial sources, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to Webster's Dictionary, say that any unborn child is considered a fetus. The US Supreme Court has said so, too. The Globe had plenty of reason to use the word other than to please abortion rights activists or make a political statement on behalf of abortion rights.

So how was the decision to use ''fetus'' made?

The night of the shooting, night desk staffers -- who didn't receive the story until after midnight -- debated the word choice question. There were clear arguments on both sides, says Night Editor David Jrolf. Finally, as third edition deadline loomed, he telephoned Michael Larkin, deputy managing editor for news operations, at home. Larkin ruled in favor of ''fetus,'' and the paper went to press.

The next day -- as newsroom discussion continued -- the issue was made moot by new information: The baby had been delivered in the hospital and had lived a short time. Thus, he died as a newborn. Globe stories thereafter switched from ''fetus'' to ''baby'' (further confusing some readers).

Larkin says be believed ''fetus'' was the correct word for the first-day story because Webster's definition clearly fit: ''An unborn offspring, especially in its later stages and specifically in humans, from about the eighth week after conception until birth.''

Case closed? Maybe not. The Globe's editor thinks the matter merits more discussion.


Remarkable the linguistic knots you can tie yourself into when you have to encode words to rob them of meaning. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2003 6:39 PM
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