OPINION: Swearing in publications should depend on context

By on October 24, 2017

Sometimes while interviewing a subject for an article, the person I’m interviewing lets out a “Holy s***!” or a “What the h***!”

Though at my age, I am not very caught off guard, I have to think about whether or not I am going to be able to use those quotes in my story because of the risks of running profanity in a printed newspaper.

Hundreds of years ago, rules were established to banish expletives from publications, literature, television and political speeches.

In an article written by Tristan Hopper in the National Post, Hopper told about a time he used Google Ngram Viewer to “gauge the historical prevalence of words.” The research tool sifts through over 30 million books in Google’s online book database. What Hopper found was that curse words were basically non-existent in books dating back to the early 1800s all the way through the mid- 20th century.

Hopper said it was not until around the 1960s when swear words gained some popularity in literature. He also reported that by 2008, 0.0006 percent of all printed works was just the “f-word” itself.

The most noticeable is song lyrics and song titles. We do not even really think twice when we hear swears in the songs we listen to. The only time I notice curse words in songs are when they are bleeped out on the radio. Even some band names have swears in them.

The “f-bomb” is dropped repeatedly in R-rated movies, and according to Daily Mail, even ‘PG13’ movies were “officially allowed one non-sexual ‘F-word’ per script,” per the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Classification and Rating Administration. More than one expletive requires an R-rating, according to the article.

Swearing has become more frequent in the political world as well. For a long time, political speech was firmly censored, until the Watergate scandal when transcripts of Richard Nixon’s, what Hopper called them, “candid White House recordings,” were released.

In 2013, The New York Times faced some difficulty when deciding whether or not to report on a business website that had a curse word in it’s title that The Times vowed not to include in its publications.

According to an opinion piece written by Margaret Sullivan in The Times, because of The Times’ style rules, that sort of language was only published on rare occasions.

By changing one word in the name of the business website, which they were quoted writing “She might have called it ‘getyouracttogether.org,’ but she changed just one word.”

Readers were confused. The business reporter who wrote the story about the business website was frustrated and argued The Times should have allowed him to publish the real name of the business website, vulgarity included, at least once for clarification.

The Times still believes keeping swear words out of its publications is worthwhile, according to Sullivan.

What I have noticed is that swear words are becoming so common nowadays that they have lost almost all of their shock value. In the past, cursing happened to express negative emotions, but people are using them more frequently in any sort of context, even as positive adjectives.

To me, not all swear words in the media make things feel offensive or vulgar anymore. It is rare that people get offended by the presence of expletives on social media anymore either.

So when is swearing in publications acceptable?

I think swearing is a contextual issue. All words are contextual. If it is inappropriate to publish a swear word in a newspaper article, then that can be decided based off of context. If it is inappropriate to write a swear word in the script of movie, then that can also be decided based off of context.

Though I do believe curse words have lost much of their shock value and derogatory weight, sometimes, in certain contexts, they are unnecessary. But in most cases, I think whoever is consuming the news is mature enough to read a few s**ts and d***s.

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About Kelly Ryan

Web Director
Email: kelly.ryan@quinnipiac.edu
Twitter: @KellyRyanJRN
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Year: 2019
Major: Journalism