Too vulgar to print?

The issue of publishing obscenities and vulgarities is back with us. Several recent articles have raised again the question of what kind of language news organizations should allow in their stories.

Last month Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society, declared in a New York Times oped that society has become much more comfortable with vulgarities in recent decades, “but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all.”

Two thoughts from here on the overall vulgarity issue:

First, I’m not sure everyone’s OK with news media keeping up with the latest vulgarities. For instance, if our stories were as laced with things “sucking” as common speech is, readers might find it very tedious very fast.

Second, if the AP news report is any indicator, our use of language once considered unprintable has eased quite a bit. As I noted the other day to Adam Offitzer of the American Journalism Review, a couple of decades ago even “damn” and “hell” were words we thought twice about before putting on our wires. We don’t sweat them much now. (Our Stylebook even specifies official spellings for damn, damn it and goddamn it.)

We’ve used other obscenities, too, when we felt the context of a story really required them. But they deserve some debate before publication: Are they essential to a reader’s understanding of the story, or just casual vulgarity we can leave out? This goes to a valid point Sheidlower makes: if the reader needs to know the specific obscenity used to understand the story, we should convey it one way or another.

Sheidlower noted the common half-way approach to this issue: obscuring part of an obscenity. We do hyphenate in some cases, as when we wrote about the play “The Motherf—– With a Hat.” We’ve also bleeped out obscenities on our audio news services. Example: Joe Biden’s comment at the Affordable Care Act signing ceremony that the law is “a big fucking deal.” Even with hyphens and bleeps, there’s no mystery to readers what we have in mind.

But why bother with hyphens and bleeps at all?

We believe most AP subscribers — web and mobile news sites, broadcasters and newspapers — still want certain obscenities obscured. It’s also our own opinion that loading up our services with gratuitous obscenities cheapens our work and is of service to no one.

Certainly this issue will evolve, at the AP and elsewhere. We try to keep close to our subscribers’ preferences. The New York Times recently adjusted its vulgarity standards. In the view of its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, “The new language strikes me as a good move. It keeps the standards high but may help journalists avoid having to twist themselves into knots when writing about the title of a book or web site, or quoting a public official.”

Maintaining high standards, while still communicating clearly, is what we all should aim for.

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About Tom Kent

Deputy managing editor and standards editor of The Associated Press, responsible for accuracy and balance across all AP news services. Frequent contributor to forums and conferences on newsroom ethics and organization. Adjunct professor at the School of International Affairs and Journalism School of Columbia University. Former AP correspondent or bureau chief in Russia, Iran, Belgium, Australia and the United States. Graduate of Yale University. Languages: French, Russian, Spanish. @tjrkent