Across the nation on the morning of Jan. 26, we learned of "Seven adopted kids in one family killed in [a] fiery Florida crash."

The
story: A semi-truck trailer runs over a car and sends a bus flying 200
feet. The children killed are the passengers and driver of the car.
Several more children (on the bus) are injured. Family and friends
mourn the victims.

The grief was staggering.

But why did newsrooms refer to the children in the car as adopted
on first reference? Is adoption the most important descriptor of who
they are? Is the grief of Barbara Mann, mother to most of the children
in the car, different from that of a biological mother? Would we have
written "seven biological children" or "seven African-American
children"? How did adoption fit into the circumstances of their deaths?

It didn't.

If adoption touches you personally, you
might see this issue through a different lens than someone with no
personal experience. 

An editor told me he read the story
and thought "Wow, what a great woman for taking care of all those
kids." I read it and felt bad that, in addition to burying seven
children, this mother was being portrayed as different than other
mothers. Some might say saintly. Some might say strange. The word adopted becomes a footnote to her sorrow.

I
was adopted. I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand
how that defines who I am, how it's shaped my goals and ambitions and
my role as a daughter of two mothers. Granted, being an adoptee is a
unique and important description of who I am, but it is far from the
deciding factor. It fits somewhere below journalist and Midwesterner,
but above environmentalist and music lover. It isn't important on a
résumé, though it makes a difference on a medical-history form.

Maybe,
though, we should be asking a bigger question: What is family? Walk
into a public school and teachers will tell you that two parents with
two children is a thing of the past. Today's families include
step-parents and aunts raising nieces and nephews; they are blended
and, yes, adopted.

All of it is important. None of it merits
headline status. The bond between an adoptive mother and her child is
created by love -- not biology -- but that bond is very real and no
less powerful than the bond created by biology. 

Adoption
may have been relevant somewhere in the story, but finding the proper
place requires some reporting. As more reporting was done on this
story, we discovered that three of the children were adopted, one was
Mann's biological child, another was in the process of being adopted
and two more were cousins. Readers would want to know how all of those
children ended up in the same car together, so divulging this
information is appropriate.

Just like dropping in adoption as a
modifier, using the color of people's skin, their ethnicity or their
class as a description enhances stereotypes. Poynter's Keith Woods has
written many columns on guidelines for racial identification.
He writes, for instance, that if two people are in a conflict and they
happen to be of different races, it doesn't make race relevant.
However, if the story is about something like interracial dating, then
race is important. But too often, the use of racial codes in the media
is a way of pointing out who isn't white. For example, writing "the
murder took place in a quiet, suburban, well-manicured neighborhood" is
a way of saying "oh my God, this murder was in a white neighborhood and
not a black ghetto."

Using "adopted" can be similar. The stigmas
of adoption are still prevalent in our society, though they are
beginning to lift because about 100 million Americans -- a third of the nation -- experience adoption within their immediate families.

Open
adoption, or keeping the records of biological parents open, is
becoming a common type of adoption. As that happens, some of the
secretive, shameful stigma that enveloped adoption is changing.
Adoptive parents welcome biological mothers into the family's life
instead of, like some, playing the game where they pretend the child is
biologically theirs, damaging the child's identity when he or she finds
out the truth later on in life.

Of course, the stigma grew out of more than just secrecy -- there are other factors, like: My mom didn't want me, I don't fit into this family;
and some developmental behaviors that are more prevalent among adoptees
than children who haven't been adopted. But all in all, structural and
cultural changes are helping lift misconceptions.

Being
adopted is not something I or any other adoptee I know is ashamed of.
Just fewer than two years ago, I met my biological mother for the first
time. It has been rewarding and uplifting for me and my adoptive family
to extend our love to her and embrace her and her family as my own.

When
I tell others my story, I experience some of the same frustrations as
journalists who have to tell other people's stories of adoption. I have
two brothers whom I grew up with and two brothers and a sister with
whom I am just getting acquainted. One of the brothers I grew up with
was also adopted; the other is my adoptive parents' biological child.
The new siblings are biologically related to me. None of this tells you
how much each of them means to me.

For anyone writing about adoption in the future, a great resource is The Institute for Adoption Information Inc.: A Journalist's Guide to Adoption,
written by journalists for journalists. Here are some recommendations
from the site for writing about adoption (with a bit of my own
cut-and-paste):

  • Include references to adoption only if they are relevant. For
    instance, coverage of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman divorce typically
    described the couple as having "two adopted children." The fact they
    were adopted was not relevant to the story.
  • Don't assume a problem or issue is related to adoption.
    Crime reports often mention the fact someone was adopted as if,
    somehow, it was adoption that caused the crime or played some hidden
    role. Again, this is an unsupported implication. The litmus test as to
    whether adoption is relevant is whether children who remain with their
    biological families commit the same acts. For example, the Menendez
    brothers were not referred to as the biological children of the parents
    they murdered. However, if a genetic disease is central to a story,
    then adoption may be more relevant.
  • Avoid hurtful language: Suggesting parents "couldn't have a
    child of their own" is inaccurate. They may not be able to conceive.
    But adopted children are their parent's "own" by law and by love. Such
    language suggests adoption is second-best can be hurtful, especially to
    the children.

Family is family, no matter how
non-traditional. The only thing the Mann mother knows is that she lost
all that mattered most, regardless of how they came into her life.