Last week, Joseph Shapiro did a story on the rise in births of Down syndrome children. I received emails from listeners who talked about what a blessing their own Down syndrome sons and daughters are. But several took umbrage at closing lines in Shapiro's piece explaining why there might, in fact, not be an increase in such births:
"The reason seems to be that there are better and more accurate diagnostic tests. Doctors now recommend that all pregnant women get tested for Down syndrome, not just older ones. And new tests can check even earlier, when it is easier to end a pregnancy."
Rick Hurst of Nacogdoches, TX wrote: "What a disappointing ending to a beautiful story. You left hanging the hope for earlier diagnosis of the syndrome through fetal testing so the option to terminate the pregnancy could be exercised earlier. You missed the point to your own segment."
Kelly Forbes of Pflugerville, TX, is the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome. She loved the piece for educating the public about how capable people with Down syndrome are today of contributing to society.
"What I didn't love was how he ended the segment," wrote Forbes. "Instead of going out with something positive, he reminded us that newer tests can be done even earlier when people are still able to terminate," said Forbes. "I respect everyone's choice. But this was a positive piece that highlighted how people with Down syndrome are leading more enriched lives. Why suggest that these people don't even need to exist."
I don't think Shapiro was suggesting that at all. But the words "easier to end a pregnancy" can come across loaded in this case because ending a pregnancy, or aborting a fetus, is such a personal and sensitive issue. What did Shapiro mean? Easier medically or emotionally?
"The final line was not intended in any way as a value-laden judgment, as the letter writers are trying to read in here," said Joe Neel, the deputy science editor. "On balance, the piece overall sets the statistics in a proper context—that a new study is out showing an uptick in Down syndrome births and we explore whether the improved lives of people with Down syndrome may be causing more pregnant women not to seek an abortion when there is an indication of Down syndrome."
Neel continued: "After we say that, we turn to another expert who says his data show that the rate of Down syndrome births hasn't really changed much over the years, suggesting there are still large number of abortions. The phrase at the end builds on this thought, and is a neutral statement of fact —not a judgment."
While I'm certain the ending was meant to be neutral, I wish NPR had been more careful in the word choice, as I too, can see how some listeners came to a negative interpretation.
CALIFORNIA RESORT THRIVES
On Dec. 3, Karen Grigsby Bates did a story on All Things Considered about a ritzy, expensive resort hotel in southern California that —despite the recession — is thriving.
One listener wondered if the hotel had paid Bates or NPR to do the story, saying it sounded more like an advertisement than a news report.
"Please look into the possibility that Ms. Bates was extended some considerations — a free stay, lunch and/or dinner, basically anything from the resort — that may have influenced her 'reporting'," wrote Mario Delgado of Cincinnati, OH.
I did look into it. Bates was offered nothing for the story, nor did she stay there. She toured the resort to get the story and paid for her lunch. "I have the receipt," she said.
"The reason we did the piece is because (as was noted in the intro and in the body of the story) Pelican Hill is a freak occurence: During a recession when other luxury properties are trying to stay afloat, it's doing just fine," Bates, who is based at NPR West, wrote in an email. "What sounded like a commercial to the listener were just statistics. It does have nine kitchens, one devoted solely to pasta. It does do these seasonal mixes for the spa clients and the saline pool is indeed one of the world's biggest."
This is a natural story to be done during hard economic times when most of the reporting is focussing on foreclosures, unemployment and businesses going under. When a business goes against the trend, and its thriving surprises industry analysts, that's a story. NPR would be violating one of journalism's main tenets — to act independently — to take money for that story.