Student guest post: How do we deal with profanity in the news?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Zach Potter is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He likes chocolate ice cream and long walks on the beach just after sunset. Note: This post contains adult language.

Editors and reporters have a variety of decisions to make when it comes to what goes on a page. Is it true? Is it relevant? Is it necessary? Is it interesting?

We are tasked with more than just reporting the news. We give it context. We try to capture a moment in time with as much accuracy as possible.

With this in mind, there is one topic that has always interested me when it comes to editing: profanity. I have had many professors who shudder at the idea of a curse word making its way into an article. I have been on both sides of the coin, as a reporter and an editor, and there are certainly arguments both for and against the inclusion of swear words.

During an editing class at UNC, my professor described the timelessness of print journalism. If a TV anchor says, “damn it,” on the air, it is gone as quickly as it is said. With the written word, that obscenity will live forever, inked on the page.  People can go back again and again and read over it. That alone is enough to argue that editors need use caution when dealing with profanity. But does it mean that it should be abhorred in all instances? Not necessarily.

Now, I would never argue that one should include obscenity for obscenity’s sake. Nor should we drop f-bombs. Certainly, some words are bad enough to warrant their immediate deletion if they are ever found on a news page.

But sometimes curse words can add flavor, passion and context to a story or quote. For example, I was once in a feature-writing class and was doing a story on a convenience store owner who had been in the area for a long time. He told me some of the crazier stories he had witnessed in his day and ended with, “I’ve seen some shit in my lifetime.”

First of all, it was a direct quote, so there would be no way to change the language there. Second, why would you even want to?

“Seen some shit,” is a great way to phrase that thought.  It is succinct, to the point and easy to understand. Plus, that is how people talk when they are relating crazy, off-the-wall stories about rowdy customers, cop chases outside their stores, etc.

Few people would say, “Yes, I have seen some rather interesting events unfold around this area.” That comes off as bland to me. Yet, when I received my graded story back, the quote was circled in thick red ink with “NEVER EVER!” right next to it.

In his blog, Martin T. Ingham, a science fiction and fantasy writer, claims that just because a story is written for an adult audience does not mean that it need contain adult language.

I see his point, and in some cases, I would agree. Children can pick up newspapers (though it happens less and less) and we don’t want to corrupt the youth, right?

Well, I rode the bus in elementary school, and by the 6th grade, I probably knew more swears than both my parents combined. When we tell children that something is taboo and not to be said, it makes the urge to say it even stronger.

Mary Norris of The New Yorker wrote an article about the use of the f-word in print. At one time, there was an informal contest at the magazine to see who could slip in the most f-bombs without getting edited. This goes back to the “obscenity for obscenity’s sake,” argument, but she has a point.

My favorite line in the article comes when she decries tiptoeing around language as if we are walking on egg shells with readers: “We had a discussion in the copy department a few weeks ago about how to style the euphemism: Shall it be ‘f’-word, f word, f-word, ‘F’ word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them. Fuck euphemisms. Get on the goddam fucking bus.”

Now, I don’t believe that is appropriate for everyday news articles, but I appreciate the sentiment. When we censor ourselves, we disrespect the reader. To be sure, there are some who dislike profanity and there is certainly a limit on what is an is not acceptable. The f-word, the c-word, the n-word can be edited and left out in almost every single instance with no regret. But shit, damn and hell all have their place.

When a coach watches his team give up a 30-point lead to lose in the final seconds of a game, it’s not just a shame. It’s a damn shame! When an activist is preparing to march on a government building, she won’t give them an earful. She’ll give’em hell!

The conclusion, then, is balance and forethought. If a word does not serve to add emotion, context or flavor to an article, then there is no need for it. If there is a decent chance someone will take offense at the use of the word, then there is no need for it.

But sometimes, a harsh word is the only one that really works. Curse words, like all other words in our language, are tools with specific uses. They can be used for good or evil and it is up to the editor to decide when to censor the word out and when to say: “Fuck it, go right ahead!”