Friday, January 12, 2018


In the ongoing coverage of Donald Trump nearly every journalistic question and media ethics challenge has arisen.

The latest is, well, a sh--hole.

That's the phrase the president reportedly uttered (sans dashes) during a recent White House meeting when he supposedly told the assembled participants that the U.S. should limit immigrants from countries such as El Salvador, Haiti and several African nations. 

Reports indicate he was reacting to a possible bipartisan agreement to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, Act and ensure border security funding.

Some in attendance say Trump stated, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?"

As you would expect, the profane and offensive language drew strong coverage, and harsh rebukes.

But it also raised the question of using such specific wording to quote the president.

Most news outlets, from CNN to The Washington Post, used the profanity in their web stories and even headlines, marking a rare occurrence. In many cases when such language is cited, dashes are often placed to break it up.

In print today, The New York Times and the Post used the entire phrase in their Page One stories, but not in print headlines. The New York Post, never one to shy away from a vulgar head, went with a local subway story on its front page, while the rival Daily News, not a Trump fan, declared "SH** FOR BRAINS" on the cover with a cartoonish image that depicted the president as such.

Cable news went with the full verbiage in on-screen graphics for much of the evening Thursday night. MSNBC backed off slightly this morning, while CNN kept with the full wording.

Trump is not the first president to use profanity in a private meeting. But such a direct attack on other nations' citizens, with a racist tinge as well, gives the incident more news value, especially when it relates to the hot-button issue of immigration.

How to report it, however, is clearly a mixed question. As we are seeing, different outlets are handling it in different ways.

The AP Stylebook, long the bible for such usage, states in its latest edition:

obscenities, profanities, vulgarities

Do not use them in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them.

Try to find a way to give the reader a sense of what was said without using the specific word or phrase. For example, an anti-gay or sexist slur.

If a profanity, obscenity or vulgarity must be used, flag the story at the top for editors, being specific about what the issue is:

Eds: Note use of vulgarity "f---" [or "s---"] in story. However, online readers receiving direct feeds of the stories will not see that warning, so consider whether the word in question truly needs to be in the story at all.

When possible, confine the offending language, in quotation marks, to a separate paragraph that can be deleted easily by editors.
In reporting profanity that normally would use the words damn or god, lowercase god and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it.
If the obscenity involved is particularly offensive but the story requires making clear what the word was, replace the letters of the offensive word with hyphens, using only an initial letter: f---, s---.
In some stories or scripts, it may be better to replace the offensive word with a generic descriptive in parentheses, e.g., (vulgarity) or (obscenity).

When the subject matter of a story may be considered offensive or disturbing, but the story does not contain quoted profanity, obscenities or vulgarities, flag the story at the top:

The New York Times, in its own story about the issue, quoted its associate managing editor for standards, Phil Corbett, as saying, "It seemed pretty clear to all of us that we should quote the language directly, not paraphrase it. We wanted to be sure readers would fully understand what the story was about." It added that, "The Times, unlike some papers, omitted the obscenity from its headline and push alert, using the term 'vulgar language' instead."

"We are still inclined to be somewhat restrained -- for instance, by avoiding the actual vulgarities in the headline," Corbett added.

Asked for his policy, Post Executive Editor Martin Baron emailed: 
“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

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