SALT LAKE CITY — The Deseret News, like all media organizations, had a decision to make. When the president of the United States used profane and derogatory terms to describe Haiti and Africa, the discussion was: Should we publish the word as it was said or have some restraint, particularly when the subject is famous for his lack of restraint.
I’m speaking, of course of President Donald Trump’s words that now have circled the world, impacting our nation and other nations of the world, particularly those he disparaged. In a meeting on immigration, the president said the following, as reported in The Washington Post:
“‘What do we want Haitians here for, the president asked, according to the people briefed. ‘Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from …’” and then came the expletive description.
The Deseret News, like every media company, has style guidelines. Some are based on the AP Stylebook, a longtime standard-bearer, and some are based on a Deseret News style guide, which takes into account the uniqueness of Utah, or terminology in the LDS Church, among other things. The New York Times is one of the few media outlets that continues to use respectful titles of Mr. and Mrs.
For the most part, profanity is kept out of mainstream media articles. Certain words like racial slurs and profanity remain so startling that they can distract from the article being read. It stops the reader, or makes the use of the word itself its own story. And the words offend many readers.
So the option is to describe the word, use “expletive deleted” in its place or show the word, but lessen the impact on readers such as children using dashes or asterisks where letters would otherwise appear.
The Deseret News chose that option, knowing it would still convey an accurate message, but also allow us to maintain our standards. We don’t shy away from reporting on the harsh things of the world, hoping that shedding light can produce solutions and strengthen society.
I personally have no quarrel with media organizations who chose to repeat in news columns verbatim what the president said. Our editors and senior managers discussed it; the disparaging remarks made by the nation’s leader and the remarks themselves were the news story.
This is actually not an uncommon conversation in the newsroom. Pictures show politicians raising their middle fingers in defiant gestures, as do rock stars and others. We look at photos of graffiti, trying to understand not just profanity, but perhaps hidden messages. Sometimes gangs use graffiti to send messages and media do not want to be complicit in spreading hate.
When former President Bill Clinton got involved with Monica Lewinsky, it also proved challenging for the media. And the subsequent Starr Report used terms that previously had not been used in a newspaper and were startling to use.53 comments on this story
The heartbreak of all of this is that there is a cost to losing societal propriety and civility. Profanity has become ubiquitous. When commonly used at home by parents it is commonly used by children.
The president denied disparaging these countries, but he continues to implicate himself by using uncivil remarks against individuals, organizations and now whole countries. In journalism, some walls are worth breaking down as signs of progress. But there is no joy in crashing through barriers of good behavior and civility.