Ethics Questions: “To Bleep or Not To Bleep?”

The Washington Post covered a debate at NPR over what kind of language can be used on air, more specifically, should  curse words be “bleeped?” Although this article focused on NPR and implications with the Federal Communications Commission,  which regulates profane language and issues fines, this raises some of the same issues for print and online publications.

Mainly, the issue is over the need to tell the truth, while also taking the audience into consideration. When a source uses a profane word, should that word be completely obscured from the audience in the quote? Is it ethical to remove to word completely? Or should the word remain in the quote, but dashes added to only infer what it is?

The New York Times policy says that “readers should not be left uninformed or baffled about the nature of a significant controversy,” according to an article on the topic from 2014 by Jesse Sheidlower. So printing a word to convey the truth of a story to the audience is allowed, but how do you determine in which case it is truly necessary?

According to The Washington Post’s report, Nina Totenberg, a reporter for NPR who raised this issue in a memo to staff, feels that “although she is no fan of crude language generally, Totenberg said the news needs to be presented without audio shackles, or at least so meanings are clear.”  Totenberg argues that editing these words can change the meaning of the information or leave audiences wondering what is really being discussed.

The Associated Press deals with profanity by using editor’s notes or “uses dashes on certain offending words ‘if the obscenity involved is particularly offensive but the story requires making clear what the word was,’ according to its stylebook,” wrote the Washington Post.

Partially obscuring a word might be a compromise between completely deleting a word, and then perhaps taking away some of the meaning or feeling of what was said, or leaving it completely unedited and offending your audience. The truth of a story or quote is a major consideration, but part of the debate remains a concern for doing so in an appropriate way.


3 thoughts on “Ethics Questions: “To Bleep or Not To Bleep?”

  1. Bill Mitchell says:

    Interesting and recurring issue, Jess. Although the question is often framed as a tension between reporting as much of the truth as possible and minimizing harm (or at least discomfort) to the audience, there’s at least one other issue at stake as well. And that’s the tone and reputation of the publication, site or station that’s making the decision about how much distasteful language to include. Hope to include a discussion of “the ethics of tone” in class at some point.


  2. Matt Ingersoll says:

    As much as different media organizations will have their own set of rules or guidelines to tackle an issue such as this one, I also feel like members of the public each have their own opinions on which words are deemed “offensive” or “curse words” and which stand out more than others. Some people can hear these words spoken or read these words written so routinely that they become almost desensitized to them, while others can shudder at the very thought of it. Personal experience and maturity among a myriad of other factors contribute to this. So that being said, publishing such words completely or partially (or choosing not to at all) are such cautionary decisions for news organizations to make. It’s also a fine line between the media’s First Amendment rights and the standard codes of ethics by the Federal Communications Commission, as you point out.


  3. Hongyi Gong says:

    I believe every news organization should have their own ethics codes upon this issue. Sometimes I feel like some words that are not “bleeped” may raise unexpected opposition. I don’t know what the AP style can actually do since the readers will eventually know what that word is, but it is correct that sometimes the report just requires those words should be known by the reader to guarantee the true meaning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s