(Bet you thought I meant something else in that headline… Which is the point…)
One of my favorite journalism scholars, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, just took a look at how best to deal with the issue of profanity, an issue we in the Dynamics of Writing Hivemind have been batting around since Anthony Scaramucci’s rant in The New Yorker.
Clark’s analytical point-based system for scoring profanity’s purpose, value and social context can be found here. It’s a good read that gives you a sense of how to discern what you WANT to run from what you NEED to run from what you SHOULD run when it comes to profanity. Here are two quick takeaways from Clark’s piece and our thoughts:
- Know your audience: I once worked for a newspaper that had such strict policies on curse words that it would make a home for elderly nuns appear liberal. Conversely, I now read blogs that drop f-bombs like Joe Pesci on a meth bender. In both cases, it was about the audience. The editor of the paper knew how conservative the readers were and that they did NOT want even a “hell” or “damn” with their breakfast. On the other hand, the blog editor knew that for her readers, cussing conveyed gravitas.
A current magazine editor shared one of his earliest experiences in dealing with an alderman in a small Missouri town ranting about then-President Bill Clinton getting “a goddamned blow job.” The question was whether to run the quote, use some dashes or find a euphemism. The editor, a longtime resident of the area, chose the last option, referring to the alderman’s comments as “a slang term for oral sex.” In retrospect, the magazine editor realized it was all about the audience and still is:
It’s nearly two decades later and I edit a magazine in a place that’s not (that town). I know the place well – and that, plus my experience in journalism, makes me judge and jury on what’s offensive or not. Not to go all Potter Stewart on this but when it comes to naughty-but-necessary language, I know it when I see it. Overall, I honestly believe there’s no one right answer other than – know your readership. Whether your readers are united by geography, interests or something else, have an idea of who they are and what will make them keep reading versus put them off. (That’s advice that goes well beyond whether or not you print colorful language, obviously.) Then, with that knowledge in hand, be as clear as possible.
This incorporates two of Clark’s thoughts in a tighter way: If you know your audience well, you’ll know what they tend to expect from you and you’ll also know how far you can go with your vulgarity. For some audiences, a “hell” or a “damn” will be a turn off while for others, cussing that would peel paint won’t bother them a bit.
(Johnny Cash had me wondering for half of my adolescence what was behind the BLEEP in “A Boy Named Sue.” I was quite disappointed when I found out how mild it was…)
- Don’t make things worse: When you looked at the headline, I’d bet a dollar to a dime you thought of all sorts of things those bleeps could mean. Your mind probably played “Evil Wheel of Fortune” and pondered what might go in there. When you saw the video, I bet you thought, “That’s it? Really?” Exactly the point.
One of our journalists recalled his first editor’s thoughts on profanity and they ring true when it comes to pulling the trigger:
If the vulgarity is important enough to the story that you’re writing about it, just use the word and don’t pussyfoot around it. I haven’t always followed that advice, but I have always taken it into consideration.
It’s also important to figure out if by dodging the word, you confuse your readers more. Someone mentioned a story about an attempted ouster of a small-town mayor over the use of a “derogatory term.” The mayor said it was just an old saying his family used back in the day. The city manager who wanted him out noted he had never heard anything as disgraceful or disgusting. The story never included the term or even gave a sense of what it was. How are readers supposed to know how to judge the situation?
These two ideas will help you determine how you want to approach the situation the next time someone goes off the rails and lets loose with profanity. In short, if you know your audience and you think it is important to do so, go for it. (Avoid the halfway approach. Of the dashes or @$*(! approach, one hivemind editor noted, “That kind of stuff is reserved for the funny pages.”)
Either write up a description that will detail the issue (“In response to a request to speak to other people, Heather sarcastically requested Veronica carefully engage her in a sexual act with a lumber-cutting tool.”) or just drop the bomb and live with the consequences.