Views: Censuring the censors

This was a bad week to forget where I left my pearls, because I had nothing to clutch when faced with the shocking headline: “Former PM Kim Campbell calls Trump expletive on Twitter.”

Thankfully plenty of others stepped in to ensure a frenzy of pearl clutching over Campbell’s low-sodium version of some very salty language used by newly sworn-in member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib.

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This is the point where journalistic tradition requires a warning that some readers may be offended by what follows.

Tlaib was at a post-swearing-in party and told a story about a conversation with her son that ended with, “we’re going to impeach the mother------!”

I’m not interested in arguing whether it’s inappropriate for politicians to talk in public the way we know they talk in private. I want to talk about how the media report those situations.

Many news organizations in Canada rely on the Canadian Press (CP) Stylebook for guidance on language and standards.

The Stylebook’s advice is that swearing should only appear in news stories under exceptional circumstances. “A prominent figure cursing in public could be one,” according to CP. “On other occasions, a profanity might be essential to an accurate understanding of the facts or emotions that are driving a story.”

The companion to the Stylebook, Caps and Spelling, which offers guidance on specific words, says if you’re going to quote it, “Use [the] full word, not f*** or F-word.”

I don’t always agree with the CP guidance, but if you’re going to treat someone’s swearing as newsworthy, report the actual swearing – in full, no edits. 

Tlaib swore out loud and in full and got a lot of applause. In other words, a likely candidate for “essential to an accurate understanding of the facts or emotions that are driving a story.”

Still, most news organizations quoted it using asterisks or hyphens in place of key letters, just like I have (my personal opinion is at odds with our editorial policy on this).

In her tweet, Kim Campbell also replaced two key letters with asterisks.

Campbell’s decision to use a less explicit version in a forum where swearing is commonplace is important context, but with so many asterisks and hyphens flying around in the news stories it was hard to tell whether she was self-editing or being edited after the fact.  

How to report on politicians swearing isn’t new.

I haven’t met anyone who really believes that another former PM, Pierre Trudeau, said “fuddle duddle” during a now famous exchange in the House of Commons back in 1971, but he insisted that’s what he said and it became part of our political lore. 

Tlaib and Campbell’s comments won’t have that longevity, but with major elections here and in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 and politicians shedding the old rules of engagement faster than we can write new ones, the media needs to think about how we handle future fuddles and duddles.

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