Opening to the opinion pages of The Sun, a reader can sometimes spot profanity. This paper has no official policy on whether and when such words are acceptable, preferring instead to handle each individual case on its own. I think this is another area in the editorial process that can improve. I have encouraged some Sun editors to formulate more concrete — but not exhaustive — guidelines, and I hope this column can serve as a way to get the conversation going on what those guidelines should be.
Profanity usually has no place in news reporting. This is kind of an obvious point; news stories should be clear, direct, professional and formal. The tricky exceptions, however, come when profanity is the story — for example, if activist students were to chant it during a protest rally, or if a newsworthy confrontation between notable people were profanity-laden. A famous instance was then-Vice President Cheney’s 2004 verbal smackdown of U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor. The Washington Post printed Cheney’s quote verbatim, sparking plenty of debate over the place of profanity in a professional newspaper.
The decision to run profanity or not typically weighs the value of full disclosure and being direct against the need for decorum and good taste. In a news story, decorum should always win out, unless the profanity is the story. In those instances, sometimes writing around the vulgar words can make the story more awkward or less informative. Sometimes it is more irritating or off-putting to a reader to have to guess what the profanity was if not printed.
Profanity in the opinion section, at a college paper like The Sun, is an entirely different matter. In a professional newspaper, the standard is generally the same as in news: no profanity, minus rare exceptions. At a college paper, that standard can — understandably — be relaxed.
There are a few reasons for this. The first involves recognizing The Sun’s audience. A newspaper should know its audience, cater to its audience and be representative of its audience. For the most part, this is the student body: intelligent, young people who have opinions, think critically and question conventional wisdom. Young people are blunt in their expressiveness and tolerate (or even expect) such an approach from their peers. With this in mind, occasional profanity seems to reflect the way most of The Sun’s audience thinks and talks. Whether this reflection is a good thing can be contested, but it certainly seems to be the truth.
Columns also tend to be more conversational and informal, and they tend to show off the writer’s voice. A natural consequence of this is that writers might seem foul or juvenile if their work is peppered with profanity. A writer, though, has to be comfortable with her own product; if a writer does not mind having such words linked with her name in a column forever, she should feel free to forge ahead with her opinions. Writers are certainly aware of the future risks that come with writing profanities in a column today.
Despite these reasons, there is an argument to be made that profanity is never appropriate, even for The Sun. For one, it is generally uncivil and unprofessional. It can attract attention to itself in a way to detract attention from the larger message of an individual column. And although its infrequent use can add punch and flavor to a columnist’s voice, too much of it can saturate a column, distracting and turning off readers.
When a columnist writes something with profanity, the reader feedback tends to latch onto the profanity rather than the substance of the column. Reader feedback in such cases is usually negative; although it’s important to consider that readers who are fine with its usage are not typically going to write letters about it. Displeasure provides a bigger impetus to write in than does approval.
There are those who would prefer never to see it in print, and The Sun has to be mindful of this position. The paper should not automatically dismiss those who would prefer not to see it. On the other hand, offended readers are free to set down their issue and pick up something else. They are also free to write disapproving letters to the editors and to speak their mind to friends and colleagues — or to me.
Clarity in the editorial process will go a long way toward improving the printed product. The Sun should formulate a policy on profanity in its pages and take many factors into consideration in doing so.
Rob Tricchinelli is a second-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com. The public editor column appears alternate Mondays this semester.