Why you should curse in your student newspaper

When the time is right, at least.

It’s a common conundrum in the college newsroom. As students possessing complete editorial control over the content appearing in our papers, it’s on us to decide what is and isn’t appropriate. What needs to be defined by your editorial board, though, is not what you can and can’t say, but what you should and shouldn’t.

At The Gatepost, where I’m EIC, our policy goes something like this: Curse if you must, but never censor. “F**k” is “Fuck.” But if we’re going to f-bomb our readers, we need a damn good reason to do it.

It’s true that your primary audience is your peers – college kids with HBO subscriptions and DVD copies of “The Hangover” who’ve readHuck Finn” and blasted Jay-Z records through their headphones. But students aren’t your only readers, and it’s important to keep that in mind. You don’t want administrators, staff or faculty members overlooking points you make because your overuse of slang or profanities makes you look childish. You don’t want more conservative students boycotting your paper on moral grounds. And you definitely don’t want angry parents knocking down your door to complain because someone’s younger brother read your foul-mouthed column.

Essentially, you need a policy now, before you have to make the difficult decision about whether or not to curse on a tight deadline. You should always be prepared for backlash from the community, and, if and when they do freak out, be ready to answer to criticism confidently and in a well-informed manner. You should be able to say you acted according to policy. You knew what you were doing.

I’ll break down two scenarios, and explain how ours would apply in each.

A source swears in a direct quote

So, you’ve got a killer quote from someone lambasting the administration or speaking colorfully about an emerging trend, but the quote includes a cuss word. Should you use it? The short answer is yes, but the longer one is more useful.

You need to ask yourself, will readers think you’re sensationalizing the news by printing a vulgar quote in lieu of going with a better one? Will your source think you’re throwing them under the bus by running the sentence that happened to have a curse word in it? Do you need to use the profane quote to tell your story?

If your SGA president calls a new policy “a fucking mess,” that might be news. If a random sophomore says she thinks “it’s pretty shitty,” it’s probably not.

Direct quotes with curse words should come from speakers of note, should include, in their own way, something profound, and should, of course, be of use to your readership. If it isn’t those things, leave it out.

In a sense, then, we follow the AP Stylebook’s guidelines, which stress that curse words must be newsworthy. According to AP, though, curse words need to be censored with dashes. And that’s where we disagree.

If you do decide to swear, don’t bother censoring it. Let it rip. Everybody knows what an “a–” is, or, worse yet, what an”@$$” is, so call it an “ass” and move on.

Up for debate, though, is what to do about vocal idiosyncrasies – the source who fills the gaps between thoughts not with “umm,” but with f-words, n-words or any other -words. I’ve encountered both along the way, and we’ve never included them in a quote. Curse words are as much ingrained in our culture as they are rejected by some within it. Don’t get yourself in trouble by running profanities a speaker might not even realize he or she is saying. Ellipses help you, as a writer, eliminate information that isn’t of use to the reader. In a case like this, use them. No one should feel slighted for missing out.

Note: You might want to consider adding notes to the top of stories indicating that curse words appear within the body of the article. We don’t, but you might want to.

A four-letter word is, itself, news

Case in point: The Vagina Monologues.

When our on-campus theater group puts on their rendition of the play every year, we run the word “cunt.” The c-word comes up in a scene in which the actors discuss the word and even shout it at the audience as a way of reclaiming it – turning it from insult to expression of freedom and pride. After all the work playwright Eve Ensler and Framingham State’s so-called Vagina Warriors have undertaken to “take back” the word, it seems a bit regressive to censor it. So we didn’t.

Another example: The word-conscious editorial

Two years ago, an editor of ours wanted to run an op/ed about a word she found offensive, responding to its prevalence on campus. When it came down to it, we couldn’t justify censoring it. If it’s being spoken on campus so commonly and carelessly, we thought, what good would it do for us to shy away from spelling it out?

Here’s an excerpt

Nothing is more bothersome to my ears than the F-word. “Fuck” is not the word to which I’m referring. …

Standing in line at the cafeteria, anxiously waiting for my turn at the vat of mashed potatoes (or something of the like), I heard someone refer to his friend as a “faggot.”

I’m sure there was no malicious intent behind this exchange. However, I had been standing with a friend who is openly gay. Nothing is more heart-wrenching than having to see a friend personally affected by the ignorance of others, no matter how brief the moment or small the act may be.

Who would we be protecting by censoring either f-word – either the one overheard in the caf or the one used as a device at the start of the op/ed? Would it be better for our audience’s sake to dilute the power of the message with slashes, hyphens or stars? We didn’t think so.

In a guest blog post for The Editor’s Desk in 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill student Landon Wallace shared some interesting insights on cursing in the paper. He took the position that profanities, when used, should be hidden behind hyphens, but stressed the importance of journalistic significance above all else.

Speaking with students and professors in the j-school here for the past week, the overall consensus here is that editors must put the audience before the shock value of profanity. One student said that although profane language might gain some attention online, it will probably offend many more in print, especially because the average age of the newspaper reader is growing older.

It’s a battle, the student said, because as young people, we want to make the world more progressive, but we can’t lose the patrons of news organizations in doing so.

Kudos to Chuck Baldwin, a journalism prof at the University of South Dakota, by the way. Chuck gave a great talk at this month’s CMA conference in New York City devoted to the topic of cursing in the newspaper. The talk was aptly named “Can You Say ‘Suck my @#$%&’ in the Paper?” And it was great. He passed out playing cards with swear words taped to them, then asked us to shout them out loud, then ponder their significance. Great stuff. Really got everyone thinking.

A sex column might use the word “blowjob,” he told us, but the word has no place in a news story about sexual assault. It seems obvious, but too many student news teams don’t have firm policies in place about the use of particular words, and when it’s down to the wire on layout night, whether to say “blowjob” in print is not an easy call to make.


About spencerbuell

Editor-in-Chief, The Gatepost student newspaper at Framingham State University.
This entry was posted in Editing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why you should curse in your student newspaper

  1. There have been great stories about how and when the New Yorker determined to use what you call curse words. This is a great column in that tradition.

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