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What's wrong with a good curse now and then?

A News reader poses an interesting question.  I’ll reprint it here and take a crack at answering it below.

Ms. Sullivan: I am a 7-day subscriber to your paper and I have a question/comment about a policy of The News. Over the years, I've noticed that, when quoting a person who uses a profanity or vulgarity, you will not print the actual word but instead use something like "(expletive)" or "s---". I know this policy also applies to the use of the so-called "N-word". In this day and age, I feel that the vast majority of your readers are mature adults who can handle the occasional profanity or racist comment uttered by a public figure, especially when you are simply quoting verbatim. I'm not sure if this policy is designed not to offend more sensitive readers, or children, or to be politically correct and avoid some type of accusation, but I would like to know the reason for it. Using a person's exact words might reflect negatively on that person, but not on the paper for simply reporting it. I think that accuracy in covering a story for your readers trumps whatever potential offense is felt by a small, easily offended minority.   -- Joe Suszczynski, Grand Island

Dear Mr. Suszczynski,

First of all, your observation is right.  It’s our usual practice not to allow profanity in the pages of The New or on its website, although there are exceptions.  But why do we hold to that practice?  I guess the simplest answer is that we have always considered ourselves a “family newspaper” -- with the idea that the paper may be lying around on the breakfast table or in the family room for anyone, including children, to pick up. (And we hope that they do.)

 But beyond that, I’m convinced that your “small, easily offended minority” is bigger than you think.  Many adults in this community don’t want to come across expletives as they read a news story or an opinion column.  I know this from experience. When we’ve pushed the limits of our policy, we hear from readers -- lots of them.  

Meanwhile, the definition of acceptable language has evolved.  Some News staffers who’ve worked here the longest can still remember a time when, absurdly enough, rats had to be referred to as "rodents," for fear of offending readers’ tender sensibilities.  Happily, we’ve moved past that.  Some of the milder forms of questionable language -- a word like "suck," for example -- might make its way into the paper now, and would not have done so years ago. 

When public officials use profanity, a different standard may apply.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s famous “I’ll kick his ass” response to the report about an intraparty challenge from Teddy Kennedy was widely published in newspapers -- and that was decades ago.  If Mayor Brown or County Executive Poloncarz publicly used profanity, we might well publish it verbatim.

As for the N-word, it’s simply too offensive.  If it were in a quote from an elected official, though, we’d have to think seriously about using it because the mere utterance would be news.

We argue about this kind of thing all the time, and make judgments on a case-by-case basis.  I can think of an example from just last week when a News writer tried to include a profanity in his column.  It never got past his editors.  The writer wasn’t happy. I’d love to share with you the names he called us, but we don't use those kinds of words. 

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