Word Wars

Last Tuesday, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen referred to Chicago newspaper columnist Jay Mariotti using a three-letter word commonly seen as a slur against homosexuals. "What a piece of sh-t he is," said Guillen. "F--king f-g."

There are three dashed words in that quote, but one in particular has forced media outlets covering the story to make some hard choices. As the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reports, some outlets, like USA Today and The Chicago Sun-Times, have chosen to print the slur in full. Many others (including Greenstein's Tribune), however, have tiptoed around it. Editor and Publisher, for example, printed a story about the incident and did not use the word, opting instead for "a slur against homosexuals." That prompted one reader to write, "The 'slur' couldn't have been the 'f' word, could it? Typical gutless journalism. Once again, your religion of multiculturalism prevents you from providing the public…with reliable, hard-hitting information."

I can think of two reasons not to print the word. The first is in order to avoid needless offense. Many news outlets don't print what has come to be known as "the n-word," the six-letter epitaph for African-Americans, largely because it is considered culturally insensitive to do so. These issues are rarely clear cut – it's not uncommon to hear the n-word used within the black community itself, for example – but the default position seems to be that if you can get the meaning across without using a word that could offend people, you should do so.

The other reason is simple good manners. Many people expect their news outlets to maintain a level of civility they would expect from, say, the man from whom they buy their morning coffee, and that means that they avoid running offensive slurs. If one can use a phrase that gets the point across without employing language that doesn't make a publication unsuitable for children, why wouldn't you?

On the other hand, language has power, and that power can be diluted by dashes and euphemisms. Can you tell what Guillen said from the dash filled-version of the quote I provided in the first paragraph? Probably. You also likely know what E&P means when it refers to "a slur against homosexuals." But is something lost in translation? Don't you get something from seeing the words unadorned that's missing when you get the watered-down version?

Think about the recent Danish cartoons controversy. The cartoons were offensive, but they were also part of the story, and describing them was not the same as actually running them. (Most media outlets, including CBS News, opted for the former, however.) This is a different situation, of course, but I think the underlying issue is the same. Seeing Guillen's words without a filter elicited an emotional response, at least for me, that the watered down version did not.

One could argue that even if there is some inherent value in seeing the words unadorned, it's still worthwhile to use alternatives. In print, you don't get the full experience of hearing a recording of someone's comments, with inflection, but that's a limitation of the form. If maintaining civility and avoiding offense are sufficiently important considerations in our culture, then you could put the decision not to run offensive words in the same category. Yes, perhaps something is lost by not allowing the f-word on network television, but most people would agree that it's acceptable because it keeps children from hearing the word and maintains a certain level of appropriate discourse.

Traditionally, this debate has broken down in practice such that outlets trying to appear to a wide audience, such as general interest magazines and newspapers, have not run offensive words, whereas niche publications catering to an adult audience tend to do so. (If you use the television analogy above, these latter publications would be your HBO.) Here at Public Eye, we had an intense debate over whether or not to run potentially offensive words in this piece. Ultimately, Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBSNews.com, ruled that it was unnecessary to use the unedited words. I felt it was important to run the words, as well as the watered-down versions of them, in order to have a full discussion of the appropriateness of their use and the impact they can have. Meyer, on the other hand, argued that we could make the points we need to without using the words, and that since this piece was not primarily trying to convey what Guillen said or some other news event, their use here would be "gratuitous."

Interestingly, a search of CBSNews.com shows that the anti-gay slur, the f-word, and the n-word have all appeared in stories in the past. Meyer says that at least some of these occurrences were a mistake in retrospect. But others, according to CBSNews.com Director of News and Operations Mike Sims, were acceptable because of the context in which they appeared. For example, an offensive word appears in this story about Dick Armey, who used an anti-gay slur to refer to Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank in 1995. The n-word and f-word have appeared in stories about hate speech.

Sims says that "there are no hard and fast policies" when it comes to offensive words appearing on the site. "These words should not be used lightly," he says. "You look at each individual case, and see what wraps around that word." Sims says management has to approve any instance in which an offensive word would appear. "I don't know there would be a time you wouldn't use f-dash-dash-k," he says. "I'd have to understand why it was necessary to not use the dashes. Someone would have to make that case to me."

CBS News Senior Vice President of Standards and Special Projects Linda Mason told me in an e-mail that CBS News would not air video of people using the n-word or an anti-gay slur, even if the words were part of a quote that was central to an important story.

I agree with Meyer that offensive words should not be used gratuitously, and in many cases the sanitized version of the words work just fine. We differ, it seems, on what constitutes gratuitous use. As the divergent handling of Guillen's comments shows, different media organizations don't always come come down in the same place on these issues either. As Greenstein noted in his Tribune piece, "[t]he media have been all over the map on this one."