Five years ago, when a U.S. diplomat used a four-letter word to express her frustration with the European Union, most media reports did not include the word she used.
Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower was troubled by the omission, and in a New York Times opinion piece, he argued that the media was behind the times and that the exclusion of words – even four-letter words – made it difficult for readers to fully comprehend the significance of news reports.
“Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all,” Sheidlower wrote. “Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory.”
In the five years since Sheidlower penned his article, media standards have changed – in large part because a president who uses four-letter words in public appearances was recorded making references to the female anatomy and sometimes causes others to react to his words and actions in colorful language.
For example, The New York Times published three explicit quotes verbatim from Trump's then-Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci in 2017.
“We concluded that it was newsworthy that a top Trump aide used such language,” Times Associate Managing Editor Clifford Levy explained on Twitter.
But that was only part of the newspaper’s rationale.
“And we didn’t want our readers to have to search elsewhere to find out what Scaramucci said,” Clifford added.
Like so many of the issues confronting media organizations, the question of whether to include explicit language in a news story is not just a journalism decision; it’s a business decision.
The dilemma is not new.
“For higher-minded news organizations wishing to maintain their standards, the choices are limited,” Christopher Hanson wrote in a 1994 Columbia Journalism Review article. “Ignoring a story they do not deem relevant is an option in theory, but difficult in practice.”
In his 1996 book "On Television," French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the pressure of garnering the widest possible audience drives decisions on news content: "Enslaved by audience ratings, television imposes market pressures on the supposedly free and enlightened consumer. These pressures have nothing to do with the democratic expression of enlightened public opinion or public rationality.”
Former New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel summed up the dilemma succinctly in his 2000 memoir "The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times" when he wrote: “We could not decide whether The Times had to be a good newspaper to be profitable or profitable to produce a good newspaper.”
But the internet has added a new dimension to Frankel’s quandary.
If The Times or any other media outlet opts not to publish or post a controversial item, readers and viewers can go elsewhere to find it easily online. As a result, the lines between traditional news organizations and sensational tabloids become more blurred every day.
The blurred lines do not mean we are living in an era of anything goes. Despite society’s changing standards and the pressure on news organizations to attract eyeballs, journalists can – and should – continue to debate what is appropriate to share with their audiences, just as they did when they grappled with whether to show the graphic video of the fatal shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In 1939, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” was a controversial, yet appropriate, way to end “Gone With the Wind.” But not giving a damn is not a strategy that works for news organizations that must make quick and important decisions that have significant consequences for their audiences.