Why The New York Times avoids swearing

January 23, 2015

The New York Times

The New York Times tries to limit its use of profanity to “situations where the specific language is crucial to the story,” New York Times standards editor Philip Corbett told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan for her column Friday. He adds:

If we were to print vulgarities every time a politician, or a sports figure, or even a newspaper editor uttered one, we would print quite a lot of them. Some readers think that would be fine; others might find such a barrage off-putting, distracting or offensive.

Corbett — and Sullivan — were responding to reader criticism of a recent Times story in which New York Times political correspondent Jonathan Martin altered a quote to avoid using a swear word, presumably “shit”:

We settled on George Bush way before the campaign,” said Rob Gleason, the longtime Pennsylvania Republican chairman. With a word more pungent than “slop,” Mr. Gleason recalled, “Everybody was happy: He flew us all down to Austin, and we were like pigs in slop.”

Times copy editors didn’t harangue Martin for changing the quote, Sullivan reports.

News organizations’ adherence to strictures preventing the use of profanity has been questioned in the pages of The Times before. In 2014, the paper published an op-ed by Jesse Sheidlower arguing that journalists should “print exactly what we mean” in cases of profane language.

Also last year, Wall Street Journal standards editor Neal Lipschutz explained how the paper had loosened its rules against using profanity in print after a story containing the word “ass” appeared.

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.

Whatever your rules on profanity are, anecdotal evidence indicates that cursing improves engagement on social media.