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.