Why We Should Let Our Sources Swear (Sometimes)
February 13, 2014
Mary Clare Fischer

The first time someone swore at me, I was getting off the bus.

I was in seventh grade, that wonderful period when everyone is temporarily the worst version of themselves, and a classmate had asked me a question. When I responded sarcastically, his face contorted into a scowl and he said, “You’re a jackass.”

I still remember the pounding in my ears as I wondered what I had said to deserve such an insult.

Yet now, as a student reporter covering the media for AJR.org, I contemplate something else: What is the correct style for the insult hurled my way?

The Associated Press Stylebook doesn’t have a specific entry for that word but counsels against spelling out swear words unless it’s absolutely necessary. BuzzFeed doesn’t have an explicit answer either, though it offers some help for similar words in its recently released style guide.

“Shitstorm,” for example, is only one word. And, depending how you’re using it, f—up can be either one or two words.

As a 21-year-old journalist, I applaud BuzzFeed for confronting the words that might be considered taboo at mainstream publications.

Here at AJR, I spend my days talking to journalists, a group that can generally keep up with sailors and soldiers as far as curse words go. Some of my favorite quotes have included expletives, so much so that I’ve had to discuss the issue with my editors multiple times. AJR follows AP style on obscenities, profanities and vulgarities, which advises against using them unless there is a compelling reason and they are part of a quote.

There have been times when I’ve disagreed with my editors on this. Case in point — what you’re reading right now. Let’s just say it had a few more four-letter words in the first draft.

My particular concern surrounds what happens to the four-letter words we use in quotes. I think censoring quotes — or omitting a particularly descriptive one just because it includes a four-letter word — makes us less transparent journalists. Swearing is frequently used to stress a point rather than to offend — so why waste time policing what our sources say? 

And let me go one step further. AP advises the use of hyphens if the naughty word cannot be dropped from a quote. But what does that do for the reader? Including asterisks or hyphens in the middle of “s—” and “f—” simply alerts the viewer that something “bad” was said or written, perpetuating the taboo nature of these words as well as the allure around anything that is forbidden.

Granted, it’s one thing to leave a cuss word in a quote and another entirely to swear in editorial copy. In writing, we have more time to choose our words carefully and the responsibility to be objective. So, even though I could think of some choice words to describe Beltway traffic during rush hour, I can’t imagine any time when I’d use them in a story about traffic. They have negative connotations and might not support my story as well as, say, some statistics on traffic in the area.

BuzzFeed, even with its handy style guide, is an example of a publication, in my opinion, that has gone too far with swearing and profanity in its copy. The UK editor once posted an article titled “21 Simple Ways To Swear Like Malcolm Tucker,” in which the first GIF reads…well, click on the link and see for yourself, but be warned, this may not be appropriate for work.

Besides BuzzFeed, other media outlets appear to follow AP guidelines on profanity with varying levels of compliance.

Columbia Journalism Review asked various people to describe what journalism is and listed replies on its September/October cover last year, including “not f—-ing rocket science.”  (CJR spelled out the word in whole on its cover.)

Editors received some backlash for featuring this quote on the cover, including a letter from Van Zandt Newspapers managing editor Donnita Nesbit Fisher, who said, “I’m sure there are instances where I would agree the use of the word is warranted. The cover of a magazine describing journalism isn’t one of them.”

However, CJR interim editor Brent Cunningham wrote in an email to media blogger Jim Romenesko that the “negative reaction was considerably less” than he expected.

Other publications handle swearing differently within the magazine and on the cover.

Drew Magary’s GQ story on the Duck Dynasty franchise, posted online in December, uses phrases such as “blowing right the f— up” and “real pre-hipster s—” (both words spelled out), but the tease on the front cover of the January issue reads “Shooting the sh*t with the dudes of ‘Duck Dynasty.’” This piece prompted A&E to suspend Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, but the move stemmed from Robertson’s use of gay slurs, not Magary’s vocabulary.

When swearing itself is the subject of an article, Slate didn’t use hyphens or other symbols to mask the f-words in its copy. Staff writer Forrest Wickman counted the number of times that particular word was said in The Wolf of Wall Street (544, making it one of the most “sweariest” movies ever made). Several commenters noted that f-bombs are not allowed in Slate comments, ironically enough.

Esquire consistently runs features with four-letter words, including this recent profile of actor George Clooney, whose curse words are sprinkled through the story in which he describes fame and the creative process, amid other things.

Another more famous Esquire piece from 2003, “The Falling Man,” by Tom Junod, chronicled the story behind the photo of a man falling from the towers on 9/11. The 7,300-word story uses one four-letter word, just once, spelled out in whole. It came from a woman who was asked if the jumping man was her father — and it’s incredibly powerful.

And just this week, on the home page of The Guardian, an article on AOL CEO Tim Armstrong was featured with the headline, “Sometimes, being an asshole works.”

The bottom line is, swearing in copy appears to be less taboo than what it once might have been. I’d hope it’s because journalists are recognizing a responsibility to report the truth accurately, even if it’s a little ugly sometimes. 

I’m not advocating for every article to contain a four-letter word or for swearing to replace the wealth of other phrases that are far more descriptive. The sexual connotation of many of these words can make them obscene and disrespectful. But if a source curses to emphasize a point, the world won’t end if you spell it out in the story.


Leave a Comment