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The breakfast test

“The breakfast test” is a term of art in newspaper journalism. It identifies our habitual skittishness about publishing language or images that would make readers spew into their cornflakes as they read the morning paper. Photograph of a dead body? Racy language? Graphic description? An editor will want to know whether they pass the breakfast test.

My former colleague Ann LoLordo was brought up short by an op-ed essay last week about the Maryland State Fair. Written by Lauren Eisenberg Davis, it described—vividly—the births of livestock in the animal barn. She asked me whether it should have been considered acceptable under Sun standards for publication.

Here’s where you may wish to guard your gorge:

In Ms. Davis’s article, when a sow after giving birth to piglets expelled “something that looked like a string of sausages,” the animal sciences student on hand helpfully explained, to the parents’ dismay, that it was the placentas. Elsewhere, a cow, having given birth to a calf, calmly ate the placenta as the “amniotic sac, still filled with fluid, emerged below the cow's tail and hung there, pendulous, fluids gushing out around it.”

Ewww, the children said, and so may you.

But Ms. Davis’s goal was not to gross you out. She has an argument to support with these details, and the argument is that there is something the matter with us if we watch without remark raunchy movies and endure barrages of wink-wink-nudge-nudge salacious jokes* while being squeamish about the natural functions. And to do that, she had to remind us what some of those natural functions are.

I have been a breakfast-tester and enforcer of modesty at newspapers my whole career as a journalist, and I often grow tired of it. Of the coy circumlocutions—you know, “made her perform a sex act on him” in a crime story, or the dashes and asterisks with which we disguise words that everyone knows.** Of the assumption that every reader is a Mrs. Grundy.

So I am pleased that for Ms. Davis, our editorial page staff was willing to forgo our habitual prissiness to allow her some graphic language to make an important point.


*Can someone explain to me how it is that Two and a Half Men is still on the air?

**When we let something through, readers typically call or write to complain that our coarseness will corrupt the children. Can someone explain to me who and where all these children who read newspapers are to be found?



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:31 PM | | Comments (7)


No- I don't understand how Two and a Half Men stays on the air....But- If I want to escape reality, I'll watch it. (even re-runs)

Yes- it's risque, naughty, and silly, but fun.
Maybe it release's "the child" in us.....Hiding, but always there...And- no parent to spank , or ground us...Do we ever really grow up.?? Gee, I hope not....

I should have made clear in the original post that the following passage was also thought to be close to or over the line:

"But did she poop me out, too?" The boy's parents were no longer laughing. In fact, they seemed quite afraid of the answer.

"Well, no, but the cow didn't poop her baby out either," the professor explained. "Females have different holes for poop and for babies, just like you have different holes for poop and for pee."

>" Can someone explain to me who and where all these children who read newspapers are to be found?"

Guarding against the possibility that OTHERS might be offended or corrupted is of course the classic task of the censor.

Perhaps you should be the one to lead the charge against these pointless circumlocutions and transparent asterisks? The Sun may not be the most major newspaper out there, but it does have enough sway to make a stand - and think of the publicity!

I recently tried to flog an article about Japanese wash-your-bum toilets to a colleague. She pulled a face and said, "Not very croissante-friendly!"

(I should add that these contraptions WILL come to a bog near you. I've never been more sure of a coming technology since I did a review of those new-fangled mobile phones.)

I don't understand why any so-called 'sit-coms' stay on the air. Labored, vulgar,not-funny and completely lacking in good writing or acting: Who watches that stuff? I stick with TCM and nearly anything by Jerry Bruckheimer. And the piece about the cows at the Fair was interesting. Both my nieces were 4-H members and as undergraduate and graduate student respectively, still spend much of their time with cows. Those questions are exactly what children - and some adults, with different language - ask. And the cows have no political or financial agenda. They are simply, immutably cows.

Your column reminds me of the time, in a previous editing job, when a reporter nervously asked me if I thought a quote would be too much for our readers (it was a trade publication which children were unlikely to read). Someone who'd been double-crossed in a political deal said, "I felt like we didn't even get a kiss the next morning." I let that through.
I've seen photos in several papers recently (including yours, John) of crime scene sidewalks or floors splattered with blood, but no bodies. But anyone who thinks crime photos have gotten worse over the years should look at one of the books of tabloid newspaper crime photos from the pre-World War II era. Lots of blood, battered bodies with bullet holes, gruesome car crashes.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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