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.