Does the stylebook still prevail when it comes to moral and religious issues?

4 Apr

Part of producing news is deciding the image the publication will give to the public and choosing the right words to reflect that image.

In a story from the Tribune concerning the death of a woman, man, child and unborn baby, the headline read, “Grandfather charged in blaze that killed 3.”

After the story’s publication, Tribune public editor Timothy McNulty wrote that the reporters had let their religious convictions get in the way, and the headline should have read that the blaze killed 4 since the grandfather was prosecuted with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of intentional homicide of an unborn child.

McNulty also noted, however, that the story followed the paper’s stylebook of not referring to an unborn fetus as a person.

More criticism came from a Chicago media critic, but this time it was aimed at the public editor. The media critic wrote McNulty really had no ground to stand on in this situation, and I think he’s absolutely correct.

The media critic said, “The Trib style guide says not to refer to fetuses as people, and McNulty doesn’t present anything remotely compelling for why the headline, which correctly refers to the number of people who died, should be different.”

Dealing with matters pertaining to religion and personal beliefs are the most important times to stick to a stylebook.

What would have been the reasoning behind going against the stylebook and calling the fetus a person?

I will admit that I had to reread the story when I got to the 3-year-old grandson’s age because I’d missed the fact that when the article first mentioned a grandson it wasn’t talking about the unborn baby. But that unclarity was due to my moral views.

But just because my views made it unclear wouldn’t mean I would go against the stylebook if I were the editor.

 Because the law considered the fetus’ death to be an intentional homicide, it seems that the Tribune should change its stylebook. But McNulty was incorrect in thinking that the paper should call this fetus a person because the law did. In another story not involving the intentional homicide of an unborn child would a 5-month-old fetus not be considered a person? You can’t switch back and forth.

Again, as the editor of that story, I would have gone by the stylebook. I agree with McNulty that “moments of unintentional bias when dealing with religion and morality” shouldn’t interfere with reporting or editing. But to achieve that, you don’t allow outside views to serve as the  publication’s views, and you don’t allow your own views to serve as the publication’s views. You use the publication’s written style guidelines to follow its own views.


One Response to “Does the stylebook still prevail when it comes to moral and religious issues?”

  1. Ronald R. Rodgers April 4, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Good analysis – so what kind of headline would you have written?

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