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.


  1. ju ran duo zai zhe li you kai ge bo ke

  2. Your point is good. Do we worry about the actions of greed and hate that children see and hear depicted in our news accounts, or only about the language? The parents need to be the ones discussing the issues, language and behavior encountered.

    So, you learned to swear in my class. Hmm, not my intent!

  3. Haha, this was an enlightening week for you, culturally. :-) Do they have the same types of curse words and censoring in China?

  4. I agree. There's no point in substituting not-so-bad words with bad words. After all, what exactly is it about one work that makes it so bad and offensive? It's the associations behind it. Using a different word with the same associations doesn't change anything.