In a vulgar election, news organizations green-light profanity

August 5, 2016

Several major U.S. news organizations have similar standards governing the use of profanity. In general, swear words can run with approval, in quotes and when absolutely essential to the meaning of the story.

As Election Day approaches, Donald Trump’s candidacy has prompted editors to OK the use of words normally left out of campaign coverage, including several instances in the past week.

At The New York Times, The Washington Post and on-air at CNN, coverage and analysis this week included profanities from Donald Trump supporters and pundit Fareed Zakaria.

And, although it didn’t mention Trump specifically, The Wall Street Journal announced this week an “evolving approach” toward profanity that made oblique reference to Trump’s campaign (he pledged to bomb ISIS in November).

As you might have noticed, we now allow the printing of most vulgarities if they are in direct quotations and our news judgment is that the quotation is important to include because it gives insight into how the person communicates, his or her depth of feeling on a subject, or character. Thus, an executive referring to a “shit storm” or a politician (guess who) vowing to “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State’s oil operations.

Have the standards changed at other news organizations? Everyone Poynter checked with said no.

The New York Times, which generally avoids publishing profanities, raised some eyebrows earlier this week when it published a video of Donald Trump supporters using swear words and racial slurs. The video, which included footage from across the country, didn’t require a change in the paper’s standards.

“The film was approved by our standards editor and has a clear warning about offensive language and ethnic slurs,” a spokesperson told Poynter in an email.

The Times’ profanity guidelines allow the newspaper to evaluate the use of swearing “on a case-by-case basis, weighing the context in which it is used.”

At CNN, profanities are also evaluated on a case-by-case basis, depending on the platform.

And The Washington Post publishes profanity only with the approval of senior editors. In video, warnings of graphic content are included.

“In text, such words are generally omitted except when they are relevant to the story,” Tracy Grant, deputy managing editor, told Poynter in an email. “In quotations, such words may be published in the rare cases when they are necessary to the understanding of a person or situation.”

Here’s how some other major news organizations deal with profanity:

The AP already allows for the use of some swear words if they’re in direct quotes, or there’s a compelling reason to use them.

If the obscenity involved is particularly offensive but the story requires making clear what the word was, replace the letters of the offensive word with hyphens, using only an initial letter: f—, s—.

NPR has to be mindful of FCC regulations on-air. Their guidelines online mirror those for broadcast. Use of profanities is “strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”

That said, ‘there are rare instances where we will permit use of profane or indecent languages for news or programmatic reasons. Such an instance is when the use of such language is so vital to the essence of the story that to excise or bleep it would be to distort it or blunt its power and meaning.’

And then there are places that don’t mind a few bad words.

BuzzFeed’s style guide, for instance, allows the company to “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.”

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark has spent years watching a gradual evolution toward more bad words in the news.

“In general, I think news organizations have had too many inhibitions about using profane language. The trend is clearly toward using more rather than less,” he said in an email. “But I want to be careful about what I wish for. I draw a difference between quoting someone slamming a candidate, and having a journalist/commentator using that loaded language.”

Clark wrote last June about editorial decisions on slurs and profanities.

I remember, with some amusement now, when President Jimmy Carter declared that if Ted Kennedy ran against him, ‘I’ll whip his ass.’ How squeamish it now seems that newspapers across the land blotted out that mild obscenity. ‘I’ll whip his a–?’ What did he say, we joked in the newsroom: ‘I’ll whip his arm?’

“So as usual, we are balancing news value with community standards of acceptable usage and taste,” Clark said. “An ancient problem, with a new set of words.”

Poynter’s own recent in-house guidance, by the way, is that swear words are fine in the body of a story. We only use them in headlines if they appear in a quote, and then we redact them.