On profanity: As language evolves, should the media?

The New York Times | The Wall Street Journal

On Sunday, Jesse Sheidlower wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times making “The Case for Profanity in Print.”

Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples.

Sheidlower, author of “The F-Word” and president of the American Dialect Society, wrote that often the words themselves are the story, and other times, they’re integral to the story itself.

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal’s “Style & Substance” covered the same issue, in part. The piece refers to a March 7 story which included the word “ass.” In the past, the story reports, that word would have been a–.

What has changed? Standards Editor Neal Lipschutz says the change is slight. Use of impolite words should still be rare, but there are certain words that we’ll publish now that we wouldn’t have used a decade ago. There still has to be a compelling reason to use the quotation, including demonstrating insight into someone’s character by his or her word choices, but there are times when ass, jackass or yes, suck, may be allowed to appear, in cases where they might have been “Barney-dashed” before.

The reasoning is that we want to be classy without being Victorian, in line with the evolving language. “We still want to be tasteful, but we also want to as much as possible reflect how people speak in this era,” Neal says.

I stopped by the office of my colleague, Roy Peter Clark, Monday morning to talk about these articles and the roll of “bad” words. Clark stood up, walked to a tall book shelf and pulled down his copy of Sheidlower’s “The F-Word.”

In many ways, some words that used to offend don’t do so any more, he told me, and new ones rise to take their place.

Clark remembered poking fun at the St. Petersburg Times in 1979 when it chose not to fully quote President Jimmy Carter, who said if Sen. Edward Kennedy ran for president “I’ll whip his ass.”

“We filled in the blanks,” Clark said. “I’ll whip his arm. I’ll whip his ape. I’ll whip his asp.”

Sheidlower wrote about a kind of modern version of this in his Times piece, linking to a Tumblr devoted to the exclusion of curse words in The New York Times.

“When language can play such a hot-button role in our society,” Sheidlower wrote, “what we need is more reporting, not less.”

Clark spoke about his own framework for whether or not to include certain words.

“If something is newsworthy, I want access to it even if it’s offensive,” Clark said. “But I want to moderate that access based on tradition, audience, standards and practices.”

Maybe that means including a link, or using a passage with an offensive word inside a newspaper rather than on the front page, or making a choice about the size or prominence that word gets in its presentation.

“That’s saying, we respect the fact that some people will not want to stumble upon a word or an image that they find offensive,” he said.

Using words that may make your mother gasp or writing about topics that could do the same takes a measure of creativity, Clark said, and that creativity can make the story itself, and not just the words inside, memorable. (See exhibit a, where Clark wrote about his own colonoscopy for the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times in 2008. There aren’t any curse words, but it’s quite graphic, and funny, nonetheless.)

There is still a sense of good taste or respectability in journalism, Clark told me, and that has to be balanced with honesty and newsworthiness.

Still, he said, if you’re 50/50 on whether or not to use one of those words, “publish it.”

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  • C.J. Sinner

    This is a slightly different example, but at the Pioneer Press, we sometimes get police car dashboard video or surveillance tapes that we publish online, including a disclaimer at the top warning of profanity if we need to. Part of me sometimes wonders if *more* people click on it because of that.