Should journalists broadcast President Trump’s swear words?

February 6, 2020

In his first public statement after being acquitted in his impeachment trial, President Donald Trump, on live TV, streaming and radio said, “We first went through Russia, Russia, Russia. It was all bullshit.”

I learned a lot by simply surveying many of my Poynter colleagues after the speech. By listening to a range of people of different ages, some journalists and some not, I came away with a range of reactions that I will pass along to you for consideration.

Some said that members of the public don’t want their kids to hear profanity on the news. Some said it wasn’t newsworthy except for its shock value. A few said that not using it or bleeping it out protects the president. Some said that it’s an outdated notion that that particular word is even offensive anymore. Another said it’s “elitist” to impose our moral judgments on what the president says.

There are at least three questions to consider while trying to decide whether to bleep the president.

Is what he said newsworthy? In this case, I would say “not really.” In fact, he has used that very phrase publicly before. Once he said something similar in a tweet.

On Oct. 11, he said it again in a rally in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he spoke about an “illegal, invalid and unconstitutional bullshit impeachment.”

One of my colleagues offered the notion that maybe the president uses that language expressly because he thinks journalists might find it shocking and therefore interesting enough to air. She wondered if we are rewarding coarse language by using it when it does not otherwise have news value.

Poynter ethicist and senior vice president Kelly McBride suggested that it represents an opportunity to revisit our notions of what words are or are not acceptable anymore. Another of my colleagues said it would be totally defensible to use the phrase in your reporting if the story was expressly about the coarse language that this president uses in public settings.

In May 2019, The New York Times’ Peter Baker reported about one speech in which, “ … (Trump) managed to throw out a ‘hell,’ an ‘ass’ and a couple of ‘bullshits’ for good measure. In the course of just one rally in Panama City Beach, Fla., earlier this month, he tossed out 10 ‘hells,’ three ‘damns and a ‘crap.’ The audiences did not seem to mind. They cheered and whooped and applauded.”

On June 30, he said “bullshit” in a speech in South Korea. Again on July 17, in South Carolina, he used the word, and he uttered it again Nov. 26 in a Sunrise, Florida, rally.

Is it legal to use the word on TV and radio? It all depends on the circumstances. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates over-the-air radio and TV, points out that federal law prohibits “obscene, indecent and profane content from being broadcast.” But what exactly that means depends on the circumstances. The FCC gives this guidance on how to decide what is obscene, indecent or profane:

Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment.  For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

Profane content includes “grossly offensive” language that is considered a public nuisance.

I hasten to add that I am not a lawyer and I am not giving you legal advice, but it seems to me that when the president is making his first public remarks after being acquitted, whatever he says has “serious political value.”

Why NOT bleep it out? Generally, broadcasters do not edit the words that a president speaks. While we do edit the beginning and end of comments, we seek to maintain context. But when we edit the middle of a sentence it can dramatically alter the public’s ability to understand the comment. It is my experience that when we bleep a word or phrase the public may mentally insert an even less acceptable version of what the person said.

When the president has said or tweeted off-colored words in the past, networks have sent advisories to programs and stations about how to handle those words.

In April 2019, for example, NPR made it clear it would substitute “b.s.” for the full profanity.

NPR issued similar advice when the president was quoted as using the full version of the f-word.

The key in both cases, NPR’s advisory said, was to tell the audience the president used the full word, not the abbreviation that the network used.

Think of your audience. The FCC applies its rules about indecent and profane content partly based on when it is broadcast. Obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. But indecent and profane content is prohibited on TV and radio from 6 a.m. to 10.p.m. when children might be most likely to be in the audience.

If you do choose to use the potentially offensive soundbite or quote, consider how you will explain your decision. Using it in a headline or the cold open of a newscast is different from burying it in the sixth paragraph of the story. If you choose to bleep the soundbite, consider how you might offer the unredacted version online to audiences that want that version.

My guidance is that I don’t find his swearing, this time, to be newsworthy enough to use on the newscast. I can find seven times in the last two years he has used the word “bullshit” in public speeches, so that is not newsworthy enough to make it news.

The context in which he used it today is no different from what he has said repeatedly.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Peter Baker’s name. We regret the error.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter at @atompkins.