I had two complaints this morning about the use of “goddamn” in the main Iditarod story on the front page. It appears in a quote from Jeff King in which he describes the early race as “goddamn fast.”
The first caller, a man, said he didn’t think the word was appropriate for the newspaper, that I would probably get a lot of calls about it and probably a number of cancelled subscriptions too. The second caller, a woman, also said she didn’t think such language was appropriate, especially because her 9-year-old daughter reads the paper and might encounter it in a story.
Dealing with questions of profanity is not a favorite part of my job for several reasons:
First, it puts me in a position of censoring the way people actually speak. From reading the paper, you would think that people seldom use profanity, which is simply untrue. The portrayal of community life becomes a sort of weirdly sanitized version of reality, and I get the unwelcome job of deciding just how weirdly sanitized the newspaper’s version of reality will be. After roughly 20 years of performing that function, I’m still not comfortable with it.
Certainly there is a need for the newspaper to exercise judgment about profanity. We are a mass medium, which means we have to serve a diverse audience with many different, conflicting and strongly held judgments about what words are appropriate in common speech. I try to strike a reasonable balance between anything-goes and whitewashing the world’s vocabulary.
It feels very artificial to me. Consider this: If the newspaper publishes “shit,” I can expect readers to call and complain, but if I publish “s—t,” no one will complain. That seems almost completely irrational to me. The word is the word, either way.
The reason that works, I’ve concluded, is that while everyone understands the word, the fact that the newspaper has dashed out a couple of letters is in itself a statement: We are concerned about offending you, so we’ve taken this unusual step to avoid it.
The paper’s policy is that I or another of the top editors must personally approve the use of any profanity before it goes in the paper.
Almost every time I have to make one of those decisions, I think about how fundamentally arbitrary it is, although I try to distinguish between profanity that conveys meaning or intensity in a direct quote, and that which is more gratuitous. I recognize that my decisions often render the newspaper more prudish than, say, prime-time television (where much of the profanity, though not all, is gratuitous).
Our primary job at the newspaper is communicating information. If the way information is presented – by using profanity, for example – actually distracts readers from absorbing the information, that’s not effective communication. So that’s part of my justification for a fairly conservative approach to profanity.
By the way, we only got two calls about King’s goddamn, and I don’t believe anyone cancelled a subscription.