Damn. Hell. Ass. Once taboo, these words are now occasionally found in the pages of The New York Times and the stories of the Associated Press, two news organizations among many that have recently updated their policies on publishing profanity.
In February, BuzzFeed released an official Style Guide of its own. To no one’s surprise, this guide takes a different approach to cursing than the more traditional AP Stylebook.
BuzzFeed’s guide contains proper style for f—up as a noun, f— up as a verb, and f—ed-up as an adjective. It has spellings for s— list, s—storm, s—show and s—hole. And in case you were curious, s— talk has a space when used as a noun, but a hyphen when used as a verb.
Using four-letter words in a guide meant to provide “standards” for news writing might make some squirm, but it’s indicative of a larger cultural shift, and a reaction within the journalism world to loosen policies accordingly.
This week, that reaction received national attention. On Sunday, the New York Times published a critical guest column from Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society, making “The Case For Profanity In Print.” And on Tuesday, The Wire reported that the Times had, in fact, “quietly loosened its strict standards on profanities last year in an update of its style guide.”
Sheidlower’s op-ed criticizes the Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic, among others, for consistently failing to provide uncensored information. “At a time when readers can simply go online to find the details from more nimble upstarts willing to be frank, the mainstream media need to accurately report language that is central to their stories,” Sheidlower wrote. “It’s time to print exactly what we mean.”
With the debate over language intensifying, American Journalism Review decided to take a closer look at how four major news organizations are shifting – or maintaining – their standards for swearing.
The New York Times is known for a conservative policy when it comes to language. As a result, the paper frequently censors profanity, inspiring a Tumblr that lists all the creative ways the Times has gotten around publishing colorful words. (One recent post featured a quote that ran in the Times: “I was like: ‘You [expletive, expletive.] You should be [expletive] proud of me, instead of [expletive] treating me like an [expletive].”)
But times are changing. And in October 2013, the Times made some subtle changes of its own.
The paper’s style guide was updated to leave more wiggle room for exceptions. Now, if the obscenity in question “is essential to the reader’s understanding of a newsworthy event,” editors are advised to “consider using the term or a close paraphrase.”
In an e-mail, associate managing editor for standards Phil Corbett detailed why the change was made:
“After four years in my current job, I had realized that there were occasionally cases where an offensive term -sometimes a vulgarity, sometimes a racial or ethnic slur – was central to a news story, and that we wanted to make sure in those cases that readers weren’t deprived of significant information. So this revised entry – which is not a radical change, by the way – was intended to give editors a little more guidance in how to handle those situations.”
The updated guide also permits “profanity in its milder forms,” like “hell” and “damn.” But, of course, not without a catch: “The reason should still be clear and the rationing stringent. While any single hell or damn may seem trivial, The Times’s thoughtful, civil tone will be diminished if the report is peppered with such language.”
Corbett believes the changes — part of a “broader updating of the stylebook, which involved changes to several hundred entries overall” — have been misinterpreted and overanalyzed.
“I think The Times’s reputation as being stodgy or Victorian is rather exaggerated,” he said. “We are not trying to be prudish, and we don’t obsess over this or that off-color term. An occasional use of a vulgarity, when it’s crucial in context, doesn’t represent some huge upheaval. The overall goal is broader — to maintain a tone that is thoughtful, civil, serious and intelligent.”
Compared to the conservative language of The Times, BuzzFeed’s content seems like a free-for-all when it comes to cursing. But the website makes sure to maintain its own set of standards.
“We have no qualms with publishing non-offensive — ‘casual use,’ if you will — profanity…if the tone and subject matter of a post warrant it,” said Emmy Favilla, the site’s copy chief. “Generally, though, we won’t use profanity in our headlines or deks — except in the rare instance where, say, we’re using a direct quote or official title of something in a hed or dek, in which case we’d use symbols in place of a few letters. Within the body of a story, though, we don’t use symbols to mask a profane word like ‘f—’ or ‘s—’ and we’ll just spell it out.”
But BuzzFeed doesn’t believe its unique policies should apply universally to all media outlets.
“I really think it depends on the paper and its particular demographic,” Favilla said. “BuzzFeed’s demographic is everyone on the Internet, and sometimes people on the Internet can be crass and gross and R-rated. We’re more likely than a traditional newspaper to report on an Instagram or Twitter trend, for instance, that may necessitate the use of profane words — and we’re also more likely to publish lighthearted, funny lists, where ‘colorful’ language can add to the humor. I don’t necessarily think all traditional publications need to reevaluate their more conservative standards if they’re not publishing the types of stories that would benefit from it.”
AP standards editor Tom Kent said the Associated Press has reevaluated its more conservative standards.
“Society evolves – and news organizations evolve with it,” Kent said. “The AP has evolved. A decade or two ago, we tried very hard to avoid using the word ‘hell’ if we didn’t have to. I think we’ve moved beyond that now. And five years from now, lord knows what we’ll be saying.”
But the AP still evaluates profanity on a strict case-by-case basis. “We’re trying to keep pace with common usage,” Kent said, “while looking at vulgarity as the way we look at everything else, which is: What is essential to the story?”
For instance, Kent pointed out a Broadway play from 2011 called “The Motherf—— With The Hat.”
“There was no way to get around that,” he said, so they used five hyphens to convey the title without fully spelling out the word. For a story about a popular book called “Sh*tty Mom,” the AP went even further, spelling out the word “shitty” in a quote.
Kent mentioned a few once-forbidden words that have become relatively commonplace. “I suppose that ass is something that we see more in stories these days than we might’ve a decade or two ago. When Barack Obama called Kanye West a jackass, we certainly had no trouble running that,” he said. “Goddamn is something that we would’ve thought 10 times about a decade ago, but recently we quoted Michael Douglas as saying ‘I don’t smile a lot in my pictures…I’m always so goddamn grim.’ There wasn’t much debate about that.”
Still, there remain certain lines the AP will not cross. When Vice President Joe Biden dropped an f-bomb while congratulating President Obama on passing the healthcare bill, the AP published the quote, but hyphenated out the word. Kent doesn’t expect these standards to loosen much in the near future, as they are based on reader demands.
“I suppose if the trend among our members or subscribers changes substantially, we will too. But I don’t think there’s much doubt in any reader’s mind what ‘f’ and some hyphens and ‘s’ and some hyphens mean, so we’re hardly concealing what the word is when we use them.”
Tracy Grant, senior editor for newsroom recruitment and development at The Washington Post, said in an e-mail that the Post’s readers expect a certain standard.
“We understand that there are lots of places online where profanity is more prevalent, but we think people don’t expect to see/read/hear profanity when they come to The Washington Post,” Grant said. “We’re very comfortable with our position that profanity should be used rarely and only when materially important to the broader journalistic mission.”
Media Outlets Play Catch-up with Modern Language
Many media organizations acknowledge they are loosening their policies on profanity. The latest edition of the AP Stylebook provides standard spellings for “damn,” “damn it” and “goddamn it.”
“In that way,” said Kent, “the stylebook does actually bless those words in ways that would probably have made people faint a couple of decades ago.”
“Use of impolite words should still be rare, but there are certain words that we’ll publish now that we wouldn’t have used a decade ago,” the post said. “There still has to be a compelling reason to use the quotation, including demonstrating insight into someone’s character by his or her word choices, but there are times when ass, jackass or yes, suck, may be allowed to appear.”
In some instances, the most subtle policy changes are the most revealing. In 2011, The New York Times policy read “The Times virtually never prints obscene words.” Last year’s updated version reads a little differently: “The Times very rarely publishes obscene words.”
Related story: “Why We Should Let Our Sources Swear (Sometimes)”