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Dealing with Profanities

other topics under JUDGMENT: Avoiding Bias, Be Enterprising, Polls, Surveys & Studies, Public Meetings

Language changes over time, and each generation understands words in a slightly different way. In addition, diverse ethnic, religious and social groups have distinct usages and interpretations of everyday speech. Language that is acceptable to some may be offensive to others, and often newsmakers will...both deliberately and inadvertently...use words that offend some listeners. Journalists need to take care when preparing reports that may contain a profanity.

Is it news?

First and foremost is the issue of whether to report the profanity at all. As we all know, there are many causes for "cussing." Minor self-injury is one of them, and such a cause is generally not newsworthy.

For example, a local minister is hammering a ceremonial "first nail" as part of a volunteer project to renovate low-income housing. The minister sends the hammer down on his own thumb and then screams several choice words, to the great surprise of his congregants. While this is undoubtedly embarrassing to the minister and quite possibly amusing to the congregants, the episode is irrelevant to the story of the volunteer effort to fix up the housing.

Another example demonstrates that sometimes a profanity should be reported. At a public hearing concerning controversial behavior by members of the police department, the mayor faces criticism from community activists and rival politicians concerning his administration. After listening to the angry...but not generally offensive...words of a city councilmember and potential mayoral candidate, the mayor becomes visibly irritated and utters a profanity-laced reply.

Here we have a public official using a public forum to discuss public events. It is newsworthy that a mayor would utter a profanity in such a context because the utterance demonstrates how the mayor interacts with the public and with other city officials.

Private emotions in public view

Another reason for profane speech is sudden, deep emotion, such as grief at the loss of a loved one. It has become fashionable for some stations to broadcast profanities spoken in these situations because the language reveals the strong emotions felt by the speakers.

In contrast, I believe that these sorts of actualities should not generally be aired. The people involved are usually private individuals thrust into the news because of the catastrophe that has just enveloped their lives. They are not prepared to make public statements, and they may well be embarrassed in the days to come concerning their words and behavior at this moment of intense emotion. A good reporter should have enough sound to prepare pieces that adequately reveal the emotional state of a victim's relatives and friends without resorting to replaying their profanities.

To bleep or not to bleep

If news judgment dictates playing an actuality containing a profanity, the further question arises whether to broadcast the cut unedited or whether to insert a tone to replace the offensive word. Altering an actuality should never be done without serious deliberation about the degree to which the meaning of and impression left by the cut will be changed. Some words are less profane than others and can be broadcast. Most profanities -- including racial, ethnic and sexual slurs -- are, however, best replaced in the actuality by a tone that extends from immediately after the offensive word's first phoneme to immediately before the word's last phoneme. This will allow listeners to figure out what the word is without actually having to be confronted by it.

To give one example, it's probably okay to broadcast the word "bastard," but not okay to broadcast "f*ck."

Finally, a warning on racial, ethnic and sexual slurs, though this warning also holds true for other types of profanity. When the utterance of such slurs by a newsmaker is worth reporting, care must be taken in the script to ensure that listeners are well prepared if an actuality...even (probably, preferably) a bleeped played. Before the cart is played the anchor or reporter should say that

to give listeners the opportunity to avoid listening to the profanity themselves or to prevent children from listening. Profanities...especially slurs...lend themselves all too easily to sensationalism, particularly when reporters in their eagerness to relate the story fail to provide adequate context for the utterance or adequate warning to listeners who may not wish to be confronted by offensive speech.

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