By: Tony Case
Is it censorship when the news media attempt to avoid controversy by abbreviating epithets in quotes or ‘bleeping’ them out of sound bites? sp.
IN 1965, WHEN he was a student at Temple University in Philadelphia, Kenn Venit was passed over for a top campus editing job because he once used the word “bitching” in a column.
Today, as a television news con-
sultant in Connecticut, he often is a-mazed by some of the words that
are used in newspapers and on news broadcasts.
At the Society of Professional Journalists convention in Miami last month, Venit moderated a panel discussion titled “What the !!%#*&!!% Is Happening to the Language of Journalism?” In the discussion, speakers considered how far the media should go when relating reality through words and pictures.
No news organization wants to offend its audience, but no one wants to censor, either.
Newsroom managers daily have to make decisions about printing or airing questionable words, and they face a perpetual dilemma in having to report news while they struggle to keep readers and viewers.
Many media attempt to avoid controversy by abbreviating epithets in quotes or “bleeping” them out of sound bites.
But Venit asked if newspapers really “dodged the bullet” when they covered actor Ted Danson’s recent controversial appearance at a Friar’s Club roast of actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg.
Some papers quoted Danson as saying “ni–er,” “n—-r” and “n—–” instead of printing what he said, which was “nigger.”
Venit pointed out that arguments for and against using certain terms are subjective.
A TV news station in Joplin, Mo., once aired footage of a sign at an anti-gay rally that said, “Fags Make Me Gag.”
Venit, offended by that message, asked the station manager whether he thought the language violated community standards. “Not in this community,” he replied, noting that most of the town’s residents morally were opposed to homosexuality and the sign accurately conveyed their sentiment.
Some words may seem innocuous ? “putz,” for example, which is Yiddish for “prick.”
Venit said he once saw a headline that referred to a person as a “putz” but he doubted that he’d ever open a paper to find someone called a “prick.”
Eliminating certain language from news stories might protect sensitive readers or viewers, but it also can stand in the way of effectively communicating facts.
Venit quoted a Bridgeport Connecticut Post piece about former President Nixon’s liberal use of “the most common four-letter barnyardism.”
“How am I supposed to know what barnyardism we’re talking about here?” Venit asked. (The word attributed to Nixon was “fuck.”)
Bruce Kestin of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune said editing obscenities can be dangerous because often “the reader is left thinking that what was said was much, much worse than what was actually said. You run the risk of creating an idea that is false.”
At the Palm Beach Post, West Palm Beach, Fla., editors issued guidelines for using profanity after news staffers repeatedly grappled with the issue, assistant news editor Holly Maxwell said.
Previously, the use of any obscenity ? even the perennial favorites “hell” and “damn” ? had to be approved by an editor. But because those terms almost always were accepted, “it was becoming a big waste of time,” she said.
Maxwell urged her fellow journalists to avoid using curse words gratuitously.
“When you print a profanity, you pay a price,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say there will be people you will offend . . . and the thing to consider is: Is it worth it?”
The Post considers what is printable case by case, Maxwell said. Its stylebook tells reporters who are thinking about using a questionable word to “discuss it with your department head. If it’s approved, make sure the approval and any pertinent information about the profanity are detailed in notes atop the story.”