Should Journalists Quote Profanity?
Last week, I covered a high school climate protest for my local newspaper. In my article, I listed some of the phrases that were on the signs held by the student protesters.
One of the signs read, asterisks and all:
“The planet’s on f*cking fire” — Bill F*cking Nye
I included it. The editor approved it. So did the copyeditor. It was a straightforward, honest representation of the discourse of the event.
This week, the copyeditor said a friend of hers had given her “shit” for letting a reference to the word fuck get past her and into the paper. She told him it was a quote and it was part of the story of the event. He didn’t like that answer. He thought it should have been sanitized further or not included at all.
But — to protect whom, exactly? The children? They’re the ones that made the sign.
Though the incident in question was an event-of-interest that didn’t involve politicians, as a reporter, I spend a lot of time at meetings and events that do involve politicans.
My community skews older, and I know that most of my readers did most of their reading in an era when:
- Politicians were very careful about what they said
- Publications were very careful about what they printed
Given the flavor of our national discourse, I think it’s safe to say that #1 is beginning to erode, at least for some. In my opinion, #2 needs to keep up.
If I’m in a public meeting and public figures, or people speaking to public figures, use profanity, I don’t see it is a my job to sanitize it and “protect” readers from it. I see my job as the exact opposite. I feel a responsibility to represent, accurately, what happens. I think misrepresenting the conversation because someone might clutch their pearls does a disservice to all.
Our culture has shifted and is continuing to shift. Our current president may not swear a bunch on TV, but he’s said much grosser things, and arguably much more hurtful and harmful things, than fuck, shit, or ass. He is uncouth. I am not singing his praises when I say that, but I think that as a result of it that everyone has had to let go of decorum, in varying degrees.
Regardless of how we feel about that, it needs to be accurately reflected in reporting.
News should inform us of what is happening in our world. Pretending that the kids aren’t aware, and shouting, that a scientist has declared that “the planet’s on fucking fire” isn’t going to save anyone.
Lauren Harkawik is a writer of essays and fiction and a local reporter in rural Vermont.