When Should Newspapers Use Profanity?

Recently the New York Times carried an interesting opinion piece about when the news media should print profanities, vulgarities, and other offensive terms — the actual words, unmistakably spelled out in black and white, and not euphemisms like the “f-word” or “a racial epithet.”

The writer argues that in modern society the use of profanities has become increasingly commonplace, whether it’s in a diplomatic faux pas or on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and often the use of the word itself is what makes the story newsworthy. Why run the risk that the reader might not actually understand what the word is? In addition, because cuss words have even invaded the titles of books and plays and other literary works, what are newspapers supposed to do when they review those pieces? And the writer also notes that journals in other countries, like England and Australia, are not shy about publishing offensive words in full.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. We’re exposed to more than enough vulgarity in our daily lives — and so are our kids. Why shouldn’t newspapers strive to maintain a semblance of decorum? The fact that powerful people use profanities may be a news story, but that doesn’t mean we need to have a full frontal exposure to the obscenity itself. I don’t buy that there is a risk of confusion about precisely what the offensive word is, either. When people see the “f-word,” they’re not going to think that the article is talking about fracking. And in response to the argument that Aussies and Brits publish offensive words, my mother would ask me if I would jump off a cliff just because all my friends were doing so. I never came up with a good response to her argument.

I’m sure this makes me seem like a fuddy-duddy, an out-of-touch codger who is arguing for a senseless fig leaf that has no place in our hip, wide-open modern world. But I’ve seen how our culture has grown coarser, and coarser, and coarser as my adult years roll by, whether it is shock jocks on radio or sex- and violence-saturated TV programming or stand up comics who routinely use the “seven forbidden words” without the wit of George Carlin. I don’t like the direction we’ve taken, and each little modification seems to open the door to more coarseness to come.

So, I’m willing to draw a line. In my view, newspapers should aspire to a higher standard, and should draw the line to preserve a small enclave of decency and taste in an otherwise obscene world. Leave the profanities for the internet.

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2 thoughts on “When Should Newspapers Use Profanity?

  1. You, sir, are a codger and a fuddy-duddy. Consider if you were trying a case and the operative proof was a swear word–perhaps the key between intent and lack of intent. Would you censor yourself and risk your client’s outcome? Of course not. This ain’t the ’50s.

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    • Winship, I freely confess to being a codger and a fuddy-duddy, and you no doubt are right about using the word itself — with the court’s permission — it were a key part of a case. But I think the context is significantly different. A court case is not a journal of general circulation, sent out to thousands of subscribers and their families. Why should a youngster going to pick up the newspaper from the doorstep be exposed to a profanity in a front-page headline?

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