Critical Thinking: Are Newspapers Wrong in Downplaying Vulgar Language in Print?



When President Trump used the word “shithole” recently, some newspapers decided not to run the word in print or used edited versions. Were newspapers wrong in downplaying the vulgarity?

Kellie Chudzinski, 21, junior, Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, Calif.)

Chudzinski is editor-in-chief at the Los Angeles Loyolan, the student-run newspaper of Loyola Marymount University and is a communications major.

After the Washington Post reported that Donald Trump referred to African nations, Haiti and El Salvador as “shithole countries,” in a conversation with senators at the White House, another Trump-media-firestorm began. Media outlets, both digital and broadcast, had to decide on publishing or broadcasting Trump’s reported remarks, with some abstaining. For organizations that chose to not use the word, a great disservice was done to readers.

While I understand the concern of editors not wanting to print unnecessary vulgarity for their readers, ultimately, the reported comments are integral to understanding the situation and the views of the president. It does not benefit readers to sugarcoat real language and conversations. It shouldn’t be an editorial decision to report the president’s remarks, but rather how to use them and not to be careless with them and perpetuate a problem in itself.

The words we use matter. The words used by the president of the United States in an Oval Office meeting, on immigration with senators, matters. Language is of the utmost importance in the immigration policy decisions and legislation he is discussing.

News media has been tasked, especially recently, with not only reporting accurately and responsibly what is happening for record, but also of connecting what has happened to past and showing pattern of behavior and how that connects more broadly to society. It should always be the goal of journalists to inform unequivocally, there is no way to report accurately by abbreviating comments of this nature. Knowledge is power—to make informed decisions in our society being provided with the information available is crucial. To downplay the comments or only explain them in the context of a president using vulgarity is misleading because his views do play a larger role in the way in which he will move forward with legislation and policy.

It is important not to get wrapped up in the turmoil from one comment coming from the president, but rather focus on the actual policy coming from the administration, and if and when it deserves scrutiny, then give it hell.


Joel Christopher, 46, executive editor, Louisville (Ky.) Courier Journal

Christopher has served as executive editor in Louisville since December 2016, and in various editing roles in the USA TODAY NETWORK since 2001. 

Without question, newspapers that declined to spell out shithole erred in downplaying the vulgarity. It’s puzzling to see journalists scrubbing words of their impact.

The president himself explicitly defines himself in contrast to other political figures, and his explicit language is part of that distinction. His base’s loyalty is rooted in his fearlessness about speaking in a way unlike any other public official, so to enfeeble this particular word runs counter to Donald Trump’s own carefully crafted message and persona.

This particular word, too, carried such a connotative shock to the conscience of some who heard the president use it that it derailed the immigration deal that was under discussion. The events that followed, including the government shutdown, demonstrated just how powerfully the word landed. To convey the full impact it’s important for the reader to experience it much like those in the room who heard it experienced it.

This wasn’t George W. Bush calling Adam Clymer a “major league asshole” in front of a hot mic.  This wasn’t Joe Biden telling President Obama, also in range of an open mic, “This is a big fucking deal.” This was the president of the United States using derogatory language to characterize nations and peoples in an open conversation that included a high-ranking member of the opposition party.

We too often underestimate our readers and their tolerance for absorbing profanity, vulgarity and obscenity that’s contextually presented.

When you delve into the fracture points in our society, they are around issues and ideologies and values that often grind against one another over word choice.

We owe it to our reverence for language and passion for truth in its full context to let words speak for themselves.


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