Obscenities, vulgarities and slurs

This section addresses these ethical questions:

A news outlet’s position on obscenities, vulgarities and slurs should reflect its own values and those of its readers and viewers. Policies vary greatly across different news organizations and are constantly evolving.

Some news organizations are fairly free with obscenities and vulgarities. They reflect the way many people speak and are far less shocking than they used to be.

Other organizations use obscenities and vulgarities only if they’re part of direct quotations, and if it’s essential to report the specific word used. This caution is usually based on the tastes of an outlet’s readers and viewers — or, in the case of a news agency, the preferences of its subscribers. Also, in some countries, parents are quick to complain when news outlets use vulgarities that children may see.

The same split applies to racial, ethnic and and sexual slurs. Some feel that when slurs make news — e.g., a well-known person uses such a slur — they should be reported.

Other organizations are willing to report on the incident, but are content to say “an anti-gay slur,” “the N-word,” “(obscenity),” etc. Situations can vary. If there’s debate over whether the word was a slur or not, it may have to be reported so readers can judge. See also the modules on hate speech and actions, as well as racial and other identifiers. (link to these modules)

When vulgarities are used, they can be carried in full or implied with hyphens (“f—”),

The same differences of opinion apply to photos, audio cuts and video containing obscenities and slurs, with references blurred in images or beeped in audio.

In an online environment, material containing obscenities and slurs can sometimes be presented behind a slate that warns about the content and lets viewers click through if they wish.

Policies on obscenities and slurs need to be regularly reviewed because audience sensitivities may change (usually in the direction of being less and less shocked by such language).

The main author of this section is Thomas Kent.

See the module in this project on “Racial, Ethnic, Religious, Gender and Sexual Orientation References.”