To bleep or not to bleep

On broadcast TV and radio, certain words are bleeped out due to rules about decency. NPR’s Nina Totenberg makes some good points about this practice. She says that the news media (including NPR), too often cowed by in-house lawyers, sometimes goes too far and ‘cleanses’ the news. She says that it should be acceptable to quote people accurately or at least sufficiently accurately so that the informed listener knows exactly what was said.

Well, I said that I didn’t think that NPR journalists should use bad words or profanity. But we do – it seems to me – bend over backwards to do something we shouldn’t, which is to cleanse the news. So famously there was a piece that Eric Westervelt did that did not cleanse the news where he was in a firefight in Iraq with a squad and there were a number of profanities. And it was completely right that they should be in there. It gave you the sense of immediacy and urgency.

And it seemed to me that if you tried to bleep them it would’ve just distracted. But when we had, for example, the fraternity in Oklahoma, we bleeped them so much nobody knew what they said. And what if the example I said – what if a politician lost his temper at a woman reporter and called her particularly ugly name that begins with C and ends with T and we bleeped it but didn’t put the consonants at the end? Nobody would know what we were talking about, and we do that all the time.

I agree with Totenberg that it is important in news stories that the audience knows what was actually said and a way should always be found for doing that. Completely bleeping it out would not be good.

I try to follow the same rule on this blog as Totenberg suggests. I myself try to avoid vulgar or profane language, not because I am offended by them, but because that is not my style. But I will quote others accurately (or sufficiently so) so that readers are not in the dark.


  1. Jean says

    The same news media who will bleep profanities won’t hesitate to show a cop killing someone on an endless loop. I know which one I find more offensive and it’s not the profanity.

  2. Holms says

    I have always found it ridiculous that media have a huge antipathy towards words like ‘fuck’, and yet are also apathetic enough that they won’t bother changing it much beyond maybe a single asterisk.

  3. Callinectes says

    Generally, we always know what they said anyway. We hear the word in our head, just as we would have had we heard it in our ears also. In which case, little has been lost by the bleep except for the point of the bleep.

    Some words have earned their notoriety through many decades or centuries of use in foul mistreatment of human beings, and can still hurt if you catch them accidentally while channel flipping. But standard vulgarities? Offense is very much opt-in.

  4. doublereed says

    Yea, when you’re quoting someone or something, I absolutely think censoring is confusing. It’s a quote.

    I also think that when you’re quoting someone you should to leave in the N word, but I suppose almost no organization wants to do that under any circumstance.

  5. says

    Growing up in Canada, profanities were a regular occurrence on the news. When profanity was used by politicians or members of the public and recorded, it generally was not censored or bleeped on the first broadcast of evening or prime time news, regardless of whether live or recorded. However if it were a repeat broadcast (e.g. last night news, a later date), it was bleeped.

    I didn’t see a problem with that policy. It reported people’s exact words said in the heat of the moment, especially of those in the government, and didn’t whitewash or hide it. Once it was said, profanities were silenced for reasons of “taste”, but no one would deny that the words existed or were spoken.

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