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When headline misleads: Case of Nation’s home births story

Writing catchy and powerful headlines is considered an art. The craft takes time and dedicated effort and requires tonnes of creativity and journalistic instinct to picture the would-be audience and how they would react to reading such a headline. Would a reader battling millions of distractions stop what they are doing to read that one tantalising headline? Almost clickbait in nature, but still promising to educate, stimulate and entertain in a completely different way.

On Thursday, February 1, 2024, the Nation published a story with the heading, “Safety concerns as more modern women opt to give birth at home.” Now, that’s a telling indicator of a fascinating human-interest story. Giving birth is like performing a miracle. It takes lots of courage on the mother’s part to endure the anxiety, fear, and possibility of death when facing such a life-changing event.

Family members wait with rising apprehension after a loved one is wheeled into the delivery room. Will both the mother and the baby come out alive? What if the mother dies and the baby survives, or vice versa? Then there’s the fate of health professionals involved. Will they get it right, again? There’s a whirlwind of thoughts and tensions that go through the minds of those involved, with the overall safety of the mother and the baby at the centre.

Consequently, the idea that a “modern” woman would opt to give birth at home raises valid questions that only a well-researched story can exhaustively answer. But before we jump the gun, who is a “modern” woman? The article simply delved into the facts. The reader was left to make his or her own conclusions about whom a modern woman is. Working class? Career woman? Financially independent?

The woman interviewed for the story was described as a marketer. Implicitly, the article was saying that if there’s a modern woman, then there’s a traditional woman. But who precisely is a traditional woman, and how different is she from a modern woman? Is it a matter of values and personal choices?

There’s a very thin line between traditional and modern in this fast age of digital technology. Therefore, categorising certain people as either this or that undermines the hybrid nature of individuals in terms of their tastes, choices, and norms they cherish. In journalism ethics, the headline writer unconsciously participated in spreading misinformation.

Second, the Nation story raised the alarm about the dangers of giving birth at home, with statistics painting a worrying picture: “Although skilled birth attendance has increased from 62 per cent to 70 per cent in the last seven years, more than 80 per cent of maternal deaths are linked to poor quality care,” the story said. However, the writer only managed to interview one person, yet the reader was being told about “more modern women.” In other words, the headline created an expectation that a perceptive reader expected to be met.

The introductory paragraph, while quoting Vivian, the subject of the story, talked of social media videos of people supporting the idea of giving birth at home. The data provided, however, does not specifically point to a situation where “more modern women” are completely avoiding hospitals. Apart from the statistics from the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization, the article heavily relied on anecdotal evidence and conjecture gleaned from the subject’s social media feed. In health reporting, this is a serious matter that can mislead not just the target readers, but also other stakeholders directly involved in the welfare of pregnant mothers.

To reiterate, the article, while profoundly informative and educative (including the voice of a chief medical specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics was the highlight of the reporting), failed to acknowledge the dangers of misinformation, which could lead to serious repercussions in society. More fundamentally, in the age of growing polarisation over identity politics, such a loaded term as ‘modern’ must be used carefully with the utmost sensitivity without pandering to political correctness.

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