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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Offensive Language Ever Acceptable?

One last post for now on offensive language, then we'll give it a rest for a while.

Peter Silverton sent a note to the Organization of News Ombudsmen asking how their respective media handle offensive language. Peter is writing a book on what constitutes acceptable language standards in America compared to the UK. He blogs at

Here's his question:

I'm a British writer and journalist. I'm working on a book about
swearing (Portobello, 2009). Its hows and its whys etc. One thing
I've been looking at is how different papers handle 'bad language'.
The Guardian is clearly the most 'liberal' in the world. I've talked
about that with Ian Mayes — we worked together in the early 1990s. I
have some details of how other papers around the world handle 'dirty
words' but I'd like more.


1. Guardian: all fucked up
New York Times: all ****** up
Washington Post: all [messed] up
LA Times: all f****** up

2. Guardian: blow-job
Sun: unnatural sex act

3. Guardian: anal intercourse
Sun: unnatural sex act

I'm asking you for two things:

1. The relevant section of your style guide/advice or anything else
which would outline how your paper deals with 'potty-mouthing'.

2. An answer to the question of whether this is just an Anglophone
concern — how is it dealt with in non-Anglophone countries? is it an
issue or a non-issue?

Thanks in advance for any help you can give me.

If you want some idea of who I am, googling my image should give you
a reasonable laugh.

Peter Silverton

And my answer:

Dear Peter,

What an interesting question and one that I’ve wondered about for
some time...

There are significant differences between Canada and the US on
matters of language, as I quickly discovered.
CBC would (sometimes) warn the listeners/viewers that something
might offend. Then it would be aired.

We did a story some years ago on sex ed for mentally disabled teens.
We warned the listeners that the language they were about to hear was graphic:
“bum fucking” seemed to engender a lot of discussion. I received only one call of
complaint and that was from a senior manager at the CBC.

At NPR, I was told the audience is much more prudish and local
station managers would be quick to complain if language sounded
blue. Some even wanted NPR to “feed” the item to the stations so
that local management could bleep out the offending words,
having lost trust in NPR’s good sense and respect for a local
audience’s values.

I think the audience is more forgiving and more mature about these
things than are the managers who too often practice “safe” journalism, because they just prefer to avoid the possible aggravation.

My own suggestion to staff at both organizations was to leave the
language in the story if it was true to the circumstances
and was an accurate reflection of how people speak. When we did a
story of Marines in Iraq coming under fire, there were quite a lot
of “Oh Sweet Jesus.” “Fuck me.” And “Shoot that bastard.” The last
got some complaints about the call to violence.

I got more complaints, strangely enough about “God damn it” than
about any scatological references. Usually it was
from a woman who was concerned that her kids would hear this as she
drove them to school. When I asked how old the child was, it was usually
a teenager. I tried to helpfully suggest that the child has probably heard and employed worse.

But that seemed like cold comfort to an anguished mother from an
arrogant news manager. And she was probably right.

Mostly, at NPR, the offending word or phrase was just removed from
the report. Unlike commercial radio where anything goes,
I think that listeners have higher expectations from public

Hope this helps,



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