Keeping it Decent

Censorship is often presented as a struggle between artists who want to express themselves and a repressive government. Others take sides, either arguing that they have a right to be protected, or that they have a right to see whatever they want. Striking a balance is challenging. It’s even harder when the material facing censorship is news, not entertainment.

The Toronto Star recently asked its readers whether profanity should be spelled out. The response was overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo: Use the first letter, and dashes for the rest of the word. Readers felt it was not necessary to spell things out. I find this a curious position. Almost anyone who can read knows what is meant by f—, so who benefits when it is not spelled out?

The Star’s Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide states that “swear words and sexually charged terms” should never be used except in direct quotations. This is a sensible policy. Journalism should never resort to swear words, not out of respect for readers, but out of respect for language. There is always a better word choice than a swear, and since they are usually used as meaningless intensives, the writing is of better quality without them.

The Guide goes on to state “Even in quotes, they should be used sparingly (i.e. only when the words — and the speaker — are central to the story).” This is a less sensible policy. I believe a person’s use of language, including swearing, reveals character. When the Star edits people’s language, especially public figures, it distorts their character. Similarly, soft-pedaling their language, even when it is just by using the first letter and dashes of a word, is an attempt to clean up the speaker’s phrasing. If Justin Trudeau swears, let’s not pretend it did not happen. In any event, swearing is not the worst sin of politicians – they can be offensive on many levels.

However, a democracy, or a public facing organization such as a newspaper, has to bow to the will of the people. It seems the majority of the Star readers who care about such things want swear words to continue to be suggested but not spelled out. For better or worse, there is popular demand for censorship. I can always read the Economist or the New Yorker – two respected journals that aren’t afraid to call a s—- a spade.

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