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Posted in Behind the News

When vulgarity becomes part of the story, what's a news agency to do?

, by Tom Kent

When someone at a Donald Trump rally last month shouted that Ted Cruz was “a pussy,” Trump repeated the word into the mic. A few days ago, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told a roomful of journalists, "My party has gone batshit crazy."

What’s a news agency to do?

When it comes to obscenities and the increasingly vulgar language in the U.S. presidential campaign, AP keeps a few things in mind.

Residents of the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield line up to vote in Virginia's presidential primary, Tuesday, March 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)

First, we have our own standards: We use vulgar and obscene quotations only when we feel they’re essential to telling a story.

Second, the stories, audio and video we post often go automatically to our subscribers’ websites and mobile apps. Our subscribers have standards, too. They vary somewhat, but most tell us to avoid gratuitous vulgarity, carrying only what’s really important.

What’s important, of course, is open to interpretation. Our first reaction to Trump saying “pussy” was that the specific word he used wasn’t essential to convey. So we wrote: “When an audience member shouted out an insult directed at Cruz — a vulgar term for ‘coward’ — Trump repeated the term and jokingly reprimanded the woman.”

My own feeling was that it would have been OK to use the word. A couple of weeks later, we used the actual word in a story about Trump’s speaking and tweeting style.

As for “batshit,” you could argue it was hardly necessary to quote that one word in Graham’s lengthy diatribe against Trump and the Republicans. But when a key senator and former presidential candidate becomes so worked up that he uses such vocabulary, that’s news in itself. We decided to use the word in our text services for newspapers and online.

(On our wire for broadcast stations, mindful of the FCC regulations that many stations operate under, we toned it down: “Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham says his party has gone absolutely crazy -- using an even more colorful term for emphasis.”)

Our point here isn’t that “pussy” or “batshit” was absolutely right or wrong to use. Opinions will vary, including among AP staffers. The most important thing is for us to discuss how important such language is to a story, before the story goes out. We also need to be in constant touch with our subscribers so we’re aware how their standards are evolving.