Guest post: When you can’t find the right (bleeping) words

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Landon Wallace is a junior majoring in journalism with a concentration in editing and graphic design. He is minoring in German and spent a semester in Berlin. His career goal is to be a tennis columnist for ESPN.com.

Writer’s note: Some links contain unedited profane language.

In an interview for a UNC-Chapel Hill reporting class last semester, I found a perfect source for a story on the not-so-interesting beat of nontraditional schools. A well-respected, influential man in Durham gave me an hour-long interview, complete with his true feelings about the N.C. General Assembly after it voted to cut some funding to charter schools. At one point he said, “I think the Senate is filled with a bunch of f—— idiots.”

I was living a young reporter’s dream. That quote carried that story, and I thought it might actually create a wave of controversy in the community. (The story was never actually published, and thus it didn’t even cause a ripple, but that’s not the point.) I still remember the excitement I had from getting a solid quote with profanity, because I thought that it took my story to another level.

However, as I have transitioned to classes that focus more on the editing side of journalism, I lost the excitement for expletives. The Associated Press Stylebook instructs to leave out profanity except from direct quotes, and even in those cases, there must be a compelling reason to use it. If profanity is used, every letter after the first should be hyphenated (as shown in the quote in the first paragraph of this post).

But with the advent of online media, many news organizations have not followed the style set forth by the AP. One example is when Vice President Joe Biden’s slip-up about health-care reform from last month. A Washington Post blog favored the “[expletive]” route, and The New York Times decided to use ellipses, but the NBC video attached to the NYT article uses correct AP style.

But the issue with profanity isn’t just about the continuity set forth by major news organizations — it is about whether to use the profanity at all. The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper admitted in 2008 that cursing in its stories has significantly risen over the past decade. With this rise probably consistent with many online news organizations in the United States, editors now have even more difficult jobs; they must carefully weigh the newsworthiness of the quote with the integrity of the organization and the possible negative reaction from the audience.

Speaking with students and professors in the j-school here for the past week, the overall consensus here is that editors must put the audience before the shock value of profanity. One student said that although profane language might gain some attention online, it will probably offend many more in print, especially because the average age of the newspaper reader is growing older.

It’s a battle, the student said, because as young people, we want to make the world more progressive, but we can’t lose the patrons of news organizations in doing so.

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3 thoughts on “Guest post: When you can’t find the right (bleeping) words

  1. Great insight. As much trust as we place in reporters, it might be unfair to ask them to properly self-govern the frequency of profanity inserted into stories. It gets away from a key goal — to craft the most compelling copy possible. If there is a movement to rein in profanity, copy editors should play a larger role in weighing the merits of each usage.

    The optimal result, of course, would be that all sources adopt a Roy Williams-like approach to swearing, dadgummit.

  2. “…because as young people, we want to make the world more progressive…”

    Publishing profanity doesn’t make the world more progressive.

    I tell reporters to avoid the cheap thrills of a profanity laced quote. Instead, if they want to rile readers, let’s do it with a story raising hell about some injustice, not a curse word slipped into a story for no good reason.

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