American Journalism Review
Vol. 22, No. 9
Nov. 14-20, 2000, pp. 38-41

Excerpts from:

Language Barriers
What guidelines do news organizations use when it comes to publishing or airing offensive language?

By Assistant Managing Editor Lori Robertson

Anyone would agree that there are more naughty words now in movies, television shows and teenage conversation than there were 10 or 20 years ago. But Reinhold Aman can pinpoint three times in history when the threshold shifted significantly. Aman, a philologist, or lover of words, who holds a Ph.D. in German language and medieval literature, says World War II -- where soldiers didn't mince words -- the cultural revolution in the 1960s and the growth of uncensored cable TV have loosened our tongues. "Some newspapers have loosened up a bit," as well, he says.

Aman is a bit of an expert on filthy language. Since 1977, he's been editor and publisher of Maledicta, a 12-volume collection of vulgarities in print, speech and graffiti. He's been monitoring the George W. Bush comment [about Adam Clymer, a New York Times reporter, whom he described to Dick Cheney as a "major-league asshole" -- R.A.] and he gives thumbs-down to "the stupid Associated Press" -- which simply printed Bush "disparaged Clymer" -- and kudos to New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who opted for full disclosure.

Aman was "delighted" that a few publications did the same. "For me, rockets [go] off," he says. "Here's an editor who has guts."

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If a word must be left out, the media face another decision: What should go in the naughty word's place? Reuters' style guide says that the news service should not use euphemisms or dots. Reuters either uses the profanity or not, alerting wire editors of an offensive word's location.

Aman argues against leaving the identity of the word to the reader's imagination, which usually envisions the worst. "If this is an important quote from an important person, either quote the damn thing, or use, if you have to ... one or two asterisks," he says, so it won't shock "the most sensitive people."

Miriam Pepper, the readers' representative at the Kansas City Star, agrees, and takes issue with the Star's decision to print "expletive" in the Bush quote. In a September 10 column she writes: "I say let the biggest public figures face having their slip-ups in print, without protection from parentheses. If it's enough of an issue to print, let's not make readers guess what was said."

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