Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Foul language in journalism

This week, the lecture part of JOUR 420 talked about use of language in journalism.

It was actually a very interesting lecture, as I learned so much more dirty words and expressions than ever. I did not know what "sloppy seconds" means; I did not know what the "C word for women" actually is, and I shied away from asking. Moreover, as a person who speaks English as the second language, I do not make as much cultural association as native speakers do. To me, “crap” is synonymous with "nonsense;" the "bodily penetration" part of the F-word's meaning seldom occurs to me when I curse with it to express my anger or cynicism, or simply for fun.

But of course, they are considered dirty or vulgar words after all. When putting them in print or on air, news writers and editors are concerned they might be setting a bad example and spreading its negative influences around, especially to children. Honestly, adults use the so-called dirty words all the time. Particularly in terms of the F word and the S word, Americans are really creative in using it. Expressions like "not give a s***" and "fan-f***ing-tastic" make people feel kind of cool to talk that way. Not many get offended by them unless the speaker is being personal and malicious.

But no one want their own children to overhear these words and pick them up, which jars with their supposedly innocent age. All journalists know dirty words in quotes show the human side of the interviewees and add more punch. Out of consideration for readers who expect good taste and who are under age, they have to sanitize the media.

Professor Jean McDonald mentioned two general ways to do it: 1, use asterisks or other symbols, similar to bleeping in broadcast, to wipe out most part or entirety of dirty words while still making room for them it, like "f***" and "s---"; 2, use ellipses or brackets and explanation in place of the original text to indicate the speaker has said something unprintable, like "He said something in anger to his girlfriend that is not suitable for print; 3, paraphrase the very dirty or unprintable words.

While I believe children and adults alike would be even more curious about what has been said, determined to find out the answer, and/or come up with even worse language, I cannot find a good alternative to it. Journalists feel heartbroken when they get a colorful and relevant quote but have to let it go without even slightly hinting at it.

However, Professor McDonald asked us what if we replace the controversial words with ones that are less problematic. I would say it is actually hypocritical of those who claim children should be taken into consideration. When you keep children from bad influences, it's not about the words they use to curse. It's about the conduct of being nasty to people. Saying things like "pig," "stupid," and "kiss the donkey's apperture of mine" that have no word directly related to profanity, obscenity or vulgarity is not harmless. It makes no sense if you champion the purity of children on one hand and use substitute words to express hateful meaning on the other. But if those substitutes are merely exclamatory words, such as "gosh," "gee," that is fine. They are not meant for hurting people. Nor do they disparage religion or deity.

If I were the writer or the editor, I would decide on a case-by-case basis. Whether it is relevant, who said it, what it is about...these factors matter in my decision-making process.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Translation of the press' viewpoints

The New York Times has recently published an article about a group of Chinese volunteers' efforts in translating almost the entirety of each issue of the Britain-based magazine The Economist into Chinese and publishing them online without authorization of either the Chinese government or the magazine.

Read the full text: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/02/business/media/02economist.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

(I am still unfamiliar with the intellectual property law of the States. Is it legal to paste a link to an online article, say, a news story of The New York Times, that is copyrighted?)

Even though at a conservative estimate, one fifth of Chinese population, that is, 200 million people, have learned or are learning English, many of them have very basic and limited English skills. Reading English newspapers is beyond both the capability and patience of them. But it does not obstruct people's urge to learn more about English speaking countries and how they view the world, including China. They want an edition of foreign news publication with parallel text of both English and Chinese to improve their English, and Western perspectives conveyed by translation to improve their understanding. This group of voluenteers say they love the style of the magazine, according to The New York Times.

Another volunteering group in China is doing almost the same thing, but out of the opposite reason. Anti-CNN.com, established by a Chinese university student, gathers all kinds of Western journalism reports about China and translates them into Chinese, while analyzing how prejudiced the Western press is when it comes to coverage of China. The name comes from resentment an indignation ignited by a CNN report about Chinese suppression of riots in Tibet that is believed to use an elaborately cropped picture and mismatched captions to "vilify China," according to the Web site. It is determined to find solid evidence of the Western bias, not only that of CNN.

What I try to say is not whether any press is biased or not, but editorial decisions as small as cropping of a picture can even affect the viewpoints of one nation towards the other. Don't forget that many foreign language learners use journalism as a tool to familiarize themselves with the language and the culture.