rules for the media to follow when discussion adoptionOne of my biggest pet peeves is when the media makes gratuitous mention of the adopted status of a celebrity’s child.  “So and so was photographed at the soccer game with her adopted son.”  Nothing sends me into “letter to the editor mode” faster than statements like this.  So you can imagine my reaction when one of our Creating a Family listeners emailed me to say that Good Housekeeping magazine referred to Sheryl Crow’s son as “her adopted son”.  Good Housekeeping?  No, not Good Housekeeping!  I love Good Housekeeping—their room makeovers are practical and the research geek in me lusts after their product reviews.  Besides, they are one of the few magazines I can read at my hair salon without blushing.  (I know I’m dating myself, but when did Redbook become “R” rated?  I’m not necessarily against the “R” rated material, I just prefer to read about how to perform better in bed when I’m not squeezed in between the middle school principal and my son’s Sunday School teacher while getting highlights.)  So of course, after reading her email, I was propelled onto my soapbox faster than you can say hissy fit.

Now I’ll admit I was primed for this particular hissy fit.  During the Michael Jackson love-fest, I heard on more one occasion major news outlets say that that Michael Jackson was probably not “the real father” to his children because his sperm likely did not create them.  I saw red at those statements too, but held my tongue and pen because I didn’t want to jump on the Michael Jackson bandwagon and because he is, well…not exactly the poster child for political correctness.

But Good Housekeeping and Sheryl Crow were a different matter all together.  My mind was spinning with thoughts of a letter writing campaign when I decided that I had better see the offending statement with my own eyes.  A quick trip to Superior Styles Salon and there, under a beautiful picture of Crow with her son, was the caption: “Wyatt [my adopted son] is definitely all mine. Little souls find their way to you whether they’re from your womb or someone else’s.” ~Sheryl Crow.

Nothing like pure intent and a positive statement about adoption to drain the righteous indignation right out of you.  Although the wording was awkward, I had to acknowledge that their heart was in the right place.  Unfortunately, pure intent is not enough.  Language matters and it particularly matters when it is in print and distributed to hundreds of thousands.  Seldom do journalists intentionally try to demean families formed by adoption, but that in fact is what they do when they unnecessary reference how a child joined his family.  This applies regardless if the child was adopted, born to a surrogate, or conceived through donor egg or sperm.

In fairness, the world and language of adoption and third party reproduction can be confusing and a political correctness minefield.  Rather than berate one of my favorite magazines, I channeled my righteous indignation into creating two simple rules to help them navigate.

1.  Only mention how a child joined a family if it is directly relevant to the story.

When a child is first adopted or born through surrogacy it is relevant because the story is the arrival.  The following year when the celebrity is photographed with the child, it is not.  If uncertain of relevance, I suggest this litmus test: If the child had been born by cesarean section, would it be necessary to mention that fact.  Yes, if the story is about medical complications the following year resulting from the birth; no, if the story is about the joys of new motherhood.  Ditto with adoption.  Yes, if the story is about the celebrity speaking at an adoption conference; no, if the celebrity is photographed sharing an ice cream cone with his daughter.  How a child enters the family is not a distinguishing characteristic that they carry through life.  At President Regan’s funeral, a surprising number of journalists referred to his son Michael, who had been adopted at birth 50+ years previously, as “his adopted son.”

If how the child or person joined her family may have some relevance to the story, the second question to ask is if this information must be used as an adjective description or could it be included later in the article when filling in background information.  When the Billings were tragically murdered a few weeks ago, a headline read “Adopted Children may have Witnessed the Murder.”  The fact that 12 of their children were adopted and most had special needs may have some relevance to the story or at least to the newsworthiness of the story, but had nothing to do with the horror of witnessing their parents’ murder.  It would be better to include this information in the following sentences, not in the opening description of the children.

2.  The people who are raising the child are the real parents and all children in the family are their own.

When Sarah Jessica Parker and Mathew Broderick announced the birth of their daughters through surrogacy, some journalist reported that they were unable to have more children of their own.  Parker may have been unable to carry these children, but they will most certainly be her own just as much as the son she gave birth to.  When Nicole Kidman gave birth to a daughter last year, she was frequently referred to as a “first time mom”, when in fact this was her third child, first birth.  Michael Jackson was indeed the “real” father of all three of his children regardless if his sperm created any of them.  Whoever loves and raises a child is the real parent, and once they join the family all of our kids are our own, completely and totally and for life.  Once formed, families are families regardless how they came to be.

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OK, now let’s apply those rules to the Good Housekeeping caption.  The journalist added the bracketed [my adopted son] because she thought it was necessary to clarify Crow’s statement.  She is probably right.  Words in brackets are used to clarify the meaning of the speaker, but when added inside a quote they should be words that the speaker would have said.  I don’t know Sheryl Crow other than through her music, but I am almost certain that she would not have referred to her son as her adopted son.  He is just plain her son, no adjective necessary.  This is an example where the adopted status of her son has relevance to the story, but need not be included as a descriptive label and certainly not within the quote.  I still love you Good Housekeeping, but next time, leave the quote alone and identify the speaker like this:  “~Sheryl Crow, speaking about the love of her life– her son whom she adopted last year.”

Image credit: jochemberends