Public Editor

Readers' thoughts about The Star and KansasCity.com

Avoid inappropriately negative word associations

04/14/2013 5:00 PM

05/20/2014 10:42 AM

Most questions about scientific terminology are black and white: Either a word is correct or not. But occasionally there’s a subjective call worth considering even when the topic turns to medical procedures.

An emailer called my attention to a story on the front page of last Friday’s Kansas City Star. It concerned accused killer Derek Richardson, who died four days after a suicide attempt in his jail cell.

“Richardson’s organs were to be harvested before releasing the body to the examiner,” the story read, and that troubled the reader who contacted me.

“For many years, most medical professionals have considered the term ‘organ harvesting’ to be inappropriate, due to its ghoulish connotations,” she wrote.

“Organ retrieval, organ donation, and organ procurement are acceptable terms, and I believe organ recovery is currently the preferred term.”

There’s no question that “harvest” is widely used, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right term. I perused thousands of search results in the LexisNexis database of news stories, and variations on “harvest” outnumber both “retrieval” and “recovery” significantly.

“Harvest” is used especially often in news coverage about concerns that China allows prisoners’ organs to be removed unethically. In fact, there is an independent organization of medical doctors called Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting dedicated to these issues. There, “harvest” conjures a negative or uncomfortable association, and that is unfortunately appropriate.

I asked Tracy Giacoma, director of organ transplantation at the University of Kansas Hospital, what her preferred terminology would be.

“Usually we say organ procurement,” she said. But that is probably too technical for a general-interest publication such as The Star, she added. “‘Retrieval’ or ‘recovery’ would help the lay person understand more.”

Catching a moment

Reader Rudy DiOrio emailed last week with compliments for a photo in the April 9 Local section.

“It captured a young newlywed couple admiring a magnolia tree while in the background an elderly couple was passing by,” he wrote. “(Photographer Fred Blocher) probably couldn't have staged this photo any better if he had even tried.”

DiOrio had another suggestion : “What might be kind of fun is to approach the newlyweds about having their picture taken at that same location, same time of year while the magnolia is in full bloom for years to come as they approach the age of the elderly couple in the background.”

I like his idea — though the resulting photographs would be quite different from the first.

That’s because photojournalists don’t pose news photos. To do so is considered among the biggest ethical transgressions in the profession.

Posed images should be labeled as photo illustrations to make it clear they don’t depict action as it happened without the photographer’s interference. The same label applies to photographs that are altered for artistic purposes.

As sophisticated digital photography tools make it ever easier for people to create convincing fake images, journalists need to be as explicit as possible about alterations other than normal tweaks to color, brightness or image noise that are essential to the printing process.

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