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Self-abuse and journalism

It falls to me, sometime head of The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, author of an in-house newsletter, keeper of the house stylebook, perpetrator of this blog, to issue curbside rulings on style as stories come across the desk. My masters, of course, rule on substantive or sensitive issues, but I deal with the small change of daily issues.

So they come to me one day from sports to ask about the acceptability of using a vulgarism in a quote. Some athlete is calling another a “wanker.” This is supposedly essential to the dynamic of the story. Wanker, you may already know, is a British slang term for a masturbator, and is not a compliment. But sports makes a case for it, and I say that it can be justified in that case but that it should not be considered a precedent.

Of course, in the monkey-see, monkey-do world that is big-time journalism, it was less than a week before someone else tried to get wanker into the paper, and the discussion about the precedent I had set was accompanied by comments volunteered by the gallery. I said no.

Nobody loves a censor. Censorship sucks. (Sucks was long prohibited at The Sun as “vulgar street language, but there has been some loosening-up.)

The alternative press and many online publications and HBO and that guy’s radio blaring from the car next to you at the traffic light can all use vulgar language, extremely offensive language, freely, and the British press is also quite relaxed. But American daily newspapers are prudish—you may prefer tight-assed—about bad language. So are many of our readers, who expect their paper to observe the conventions that they are accustomed to from decades past.

That leaves us using clumsy circumlocutions: “performed a sexual act on him,” “the N-word,” “the F-word,” “[expletive],” initial letters followed by dashes, as if we were doing the Jumble. It seems childish, and yet if we publish anything more straightforward, we are deluged with complaints that we are corrupting the children.*

I’ll be giving further thought to this issue in coming weeks, having offered to present an audio conference on charged language for Copyediting newsletter. Editors have to weigh the importance of potentially offensive language to the story, the tastes of the audience, and the standards of the publication, all while weighing shifting social and cultural values. And no editor wants to wind up looking like a wanker.


Bonus link: At That’s the Press, Baby, David Sullivan has written a thoughtful post about the online subscription model for newspapers.


*I am considering offering a small reward to anyone who can produce someone under the age of forty who reads a newspaper regularly.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:52 AM | | Comments (8)


Sometime back, shortly before deadline, I took the editor and managing editor to the back shop to read a daily cartoon. In the third panel, the author used the term "scum-bag.' I told my colleagues that the term meant used condomm and ws offensive. They looked at it blankly, and without a word, retreated to the newsroom. Today? No one seems to care. Maye that's progress; maybe not.

A couple of resources that are worth pointing out in this context:

When you say "reads a newspaper daily" I assume you mean a printed version? I read the online version daily.

OH, but wait, you said under 40, also, which leaves me out. :-/

That's a new one on me, Marc Leavitt. Is it safe to call someone "pond scum"?

John, I am 31 and I read the newspaper regularly. Actually, I read three daily newspapers regularly.

And radio stations can't air any old cuss or vulgar word they want to. There's a list, though it is shorter than most newspapers' never-print-these lists. Unless you are talking about satellite radio. But it's much less likely to hear someone blasting that, than what is on the airwaves.

I suppose I can't produce myself, can I?

I recently allowed the word "bullshit" into the paper where I work. The response was one letter to the editor, which argued that one need not resort to such words to make a point. The writer is clearly wrong. And I would allow "wanker" if the context made clear what the hell it means.

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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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