Posted in Behind the News

Why we quoted the president’s vulgarity

, by John Daniszewski

President Donald Trump’s comment yesterday referring to “shithole” countries sparked discussion and reflection in our Washington and New York newsrooms, and around the world, as to when to use expletives and vulgar language in our news report.

AP News Values and Principles state:

We do not use obscenities, racial epithets or other offensive slurs in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them. If a story cannot be told without reference to them, we must first try to find a way to give the reader a sense of what was said without using the specific word or phrase. If a profanity, obscenity or vulgarity is used, the story must be flagged at the top, advising editors to note the contents.
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In this case, the president’s use of the word was the news, especially because it was in the presence of lawmakers discussing serious immigration decisions. AP editors concluded that there was a compelling reason to allow a phrase that normally would not appear in AP’s content.

That said, we chose to be conservative in using the expletive in our news summaries, which are automatically published on many sites. We also carried an editor’s note warning editors to be aware of the vulgar language in the lead of the story. 

Given the significance of the utterance, we concluded that there was no legitimate reason to mask the remark with euphemistic language. 

The decisive factor was that the president used the shocking words during a critical policy conversation among lawmakers of both parties. His utterance could affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and help shape future immigration policy. The use of the term raised questions as to whether he is being discriminatory, a discussion that is ongoing. 

Let me emphasize, the AP is not opening the floodgate to the use of “shithole,” its variations, or other obscenities, and senior editors should be consulted whenever there is a question. 

Public attitudes toward coarse language do appear to be changing under the influence of novels, movies and TV shows, but we still prefer to avoid them in our report in almost all instances. This was an exception.