Should Journalists Quote Presidential Profanity?

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This week, reports of presidential profanity left major news outlets with some tough decisions on how to cover what was allegedly said.

Just because it’s the commander-in-chief, should journalists report the actual words used in alleged presidential profanity?

That question came to light Thursday when President Donald Trump reportedly asked during a meeting on immigration reform why the United States should have to accept people from certain nations.

Except that he allegedly didn’t say “certain nations.” Instead, he supposedly used a profane word which some outlets have reported as “sh*thole nations.”

There’s little point debating whether he said it in this post; Trump denied making the comment, tweeting, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” but others who said they were in the room say they heard him say it.

For example, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who is a Democrat, who said he was present in the Oval Office on Thursday for the meeting, spoke out publicly Friday morning insisting what was reported was accurate.

On the Republican side, House Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump’s comments “very unfortunate” and Sen. Marco Rubio posted a long Twitter thread about the many ways Haitians have made an impact in the U.S.

What you choose to believe on that question is likely based solely on whether you’re a Trump supporter.

During the major network newscasts Thursday night, CBS News did not say the actual word and used the asterisk in place of the I in the vulgarity. CBS News is continuing to use that styling on its website.

NBC News did actually say the word and show it graphically. On its website, NBC is using the word without any letter substitution, even in headlines.

I’m not sure ABC News handled it on the air, but on its website, the network decided to style the word as s—hole.

Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the comment was made, that the actual word was spoken.

For the broadcast networks, the “s-word” has generally never been acceptable, at least in entertainment programming. On cable, it’s been allowed for years. But broadcast networks tend to be more conservative in language because there’s a greater potential young children will be watching the programming and they fear the potential for complaints to the FCC if the profanity is too profane.

This blog generally follows similar guidelines for profanity; there are plenty of sites whose writers seem content dropping the “F-bomb” every few words or so. If you’re looking for that kind of language, this blog surely has already been a big disappointment for you.

But if the president uses language that crosses a line, should news programs quote the word or use an edited version?

I think journalists must cover the story, even if the subject matter is distasteful because it’s a story about the president’s remarks on an important domestic policy issue. It’s newsworthy, whether you agree with the remarks and no matter what you happen to think of the president.

But I also think journalists have to maintain their professionalism and their language standards in the process. One potential temptation might be to go wild with the word, the way a child might do when he hears his parents swear for the first time: just because they said it doesn’t mean the child gets away with doing it. (And his parent’s use of the word certainly shouldn’t give the child license to do so, anyway.)

I think journalists can cover the story and explain what was said without stooping to the specific level of the potentially-offensive language. You can sufficiently cover, I think, use of profanity without being profane.

The asterisks convey what was said without forcing anyone to say it.

The point is made. Standards are maintained. And truth and accuracy are still served when it comes to the controversy of the moment.

The information is provided, and the news consumer can do with it what they will.

I just don’t think using the actual word, if you wouldn’t otherwise use it, is all that necessary.

Do you think journalists — on-air or online — should use the actual profanity?

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.