Case Study 9: Fetus Dead

3 Apr

A 2008 article from The Chicago Tribune describes a situation in which Subhas Chander intentionally set a fire that killed his pregnant daughter, her husband and Chander’s 3-year-old grandson. The headline caused controversy by indicating that the smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning from the blaze resulted in the deaths of only three individuals and did not include the unborn child among those “killed.” This sparked a response from the Tribune’s ombudsman, who criticized the author’s unconscious bias in the pro-life versus pro-choice debate and the status of a fetus/child in reporting its homicide. A Chicago media critic turned around and called out the ombudsman for his OWN personal bias that may have been rooted in a more conservative, religious-based stance.

Personally, as an editor, I would air on the side of caution and follow the Tribune’s style book as the original author did when writing the headline. “Grandfather charged in blaze that killed 3″ follows the rule that a fetus or unborn child is not considered a person. The author did not let bias swing him; he merely followed the rules set aside by the publication to avoid moral dilemmas for every potential situation. This guide was put in place for a reason, and the journalist did his job by adhering to it. The headline itself could have been worded differently to avoid giving the impression that his personal views played a role in not considering the unborn child a person (as I’m sure the general public would not be familiar with Tribune style protocol). However, using legal terms in the headline can be clunky and much less SEO friendly than the original version.

I believe the author did the right thing in sticking to the style book to guide his decision, and the attempt to remain completely neutral by an entire readership’s standards in this tense, politically correct atmosphere will continue to prove to a be a next-to-impossible task. A situation like this has so many ramifications, and the ethics of it has been a long-standing issue. However, making decisions backed by more than a vague ethical rationale can help defend the choice.

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