Which news organizations let their reporters swear?
NPR standards editor Mark Memmott issued a terse reminder this morning — packaged with a wry headline — to bleep out swear words in their entirety:
If a word needs to be bleeped, no part of it should be heard. We don’t try to give listeners a hint by including a bit of the word’s start or end.
The post, titled "Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word," links out to NPR's profanity standards, which state that "language that depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs is indecent or profane." There are some exceptions: If the profanity is newsworthy or aired after 10 p.m., it might be permitted.
With his post, Memmott becomes the third standards referee to raise the issue of profanity in recent weeks. At the end of January, BuzzFeed's Executive Editor Shani O. Hilton made a splash when she unveiled the outlet's standards and ethics guide, furthering BuzzFeed's transition from a freewheeling viral content lab to a more regimented news organization. Most of the rules hew to conventional standards of newsgathering, with an exception in the case of profanity:
We speak the language of the internet — which is often hilarious and often profane. As such, profanity is permitted on BuzzFeed; but see the BuzzFeed Style Guide for more information on how to style it responsibly.
The issue of cursing was also raised at the normally staid grey lady in January by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who wondered whether the paper's vulgarity policy might be too stringent. Discussing Jonathan Martin's writearound to avoid the word "shit," Sullivan asked why the paper would alter a quote in an effort to purge a curse word:
But why, some want to know, must The Times go to such lengths? This is something I’ve considered a few times, and come to the conclusion that sometimes it would be preferable just to spit out the word and be done with it.
She concluded the column by quoting Martin, who suggested readers increasingly expected The Times to deliver on unvarnished, salty language:
“I think in this era, there’s more pressure on The Times to give up the ghost on some of this stuff.” (And I’m quoting him directly, right down to that last word.)
As Salon notes, The New York Times has printed swear words rarely in the past, once when it published the Starr report and once in an issue of T Magazine.
But legacy news organizations aren't the only ones that have edited out course language. Politico, which got its start in 2007, redacted a litany of swear words in a 2010 article examining the cursing proclivities of politicians. And in January, when New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet called a critic an "asshole" on Facebook, Politico redacted the word in the headline but published it in the story.
Here's a sampling of some other policies regarding profanity, courtesy the American Society of News Editors:
The Washington Post's standards and ethics guide tells reporters and editors to avoid "profanities and obscenities unless absolutely necessary":
In no case shall obscenities be used without the approval of the executive editor or the managing editor or his deputy. See Chapter 5, “Using the Language,” for guidance on particular words or terms that may be sensitive.
The Associated Press' statement of news values and principles allows profanity in newsworthy cases:
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.
The New York Times News Blogs and Online Columns guide bars all obscenities:
Contractions, colloquialisms and even slang are, generally speaking, more allowable in blogs than in print. But obscenity and vulgarity are not, and of course unverified assertions of fact, blind pejorative quotes, and other lapses in journalistic standards don't ever belong in blogs.
The San Jose Mercury News Ethics Policy allows the use of ellipses to cut out cursing:
Simply put: ellipses raise issues of credibility. We will, however, use ellipses to remove profanity from quotations.
Does your newsroom have a policy on cursing? Send me a link and I'll include it here.