By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita
Policies of news outfits on obscene language vary. So may the interpretation of policy by editors within the same organization. Online though, they hardly bother about rules.
May mga maingay na pala-i**t, yon ang problema sa kanila, hanggang ingay lang. Wala namang napatunayan…”
— Communication Secretary Martin Andanar, before Filipino overseas workers in London
“I f**k better than an 18-year-old.”
— Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo, interviewed by Swiss public radio
ONE may ask if President Duterte’s men are aping his style of using cuss words to entertain their audience while they represent their country abroad. Both PCOO chief Martin Andanar and presidential lawyer Salvador Panelo later explained they were just kidding and entertaining: in other words, doing a Duterte while on stage.
But that’s not our concern here, now.
The above quotes were treated differently by Philippine media. In some papers, the cuss words were spelled out in full; in others, they were not quoted, just given their meaning; in still others, like this paper, some letters were substituted with a punctuation mark.
How must media present swear language?
Two news organizations present contrasting rules: “New York Times,” the venerable institution in print media, and “BuzzFeed,” the successful online news outfit.
The “American Journalism Review” noted in a study last February that NYT and other print media must be aware of the “large cultural shift,” to which journalism needs to respond. Things aren’t what they used to be, language usage among them.
What NYT allows
NYT ran an op-ed piece that argued for the loosening of rules, thus:
◘ At a time, when the reader can simply go online to find out what the deleted or masked swear words were said, mainstream media needs to disclose fully the parts central to the news.
◘ It’s disservice to the public to withhold facts that will put the story in context, especially when the cuss words are said by a high public official.
And indeed NYT has since allowed the printing of obscenity if it is “essential to the reader’s understanding of a news event.” Otherwise, a paraphrase of what was said will do. The Times doesn’t want its thoughtful handling of the story to be distracted by cuss words.
To BuzzFeed, it’s a free-for-all for obscenity, with one caution: It doesn’t use the swear word in the headline or deck except when it was directly said by the person in the story.
It’s all up to editor on duty who makes the call. Even among editors in the same news outfit, interpretation of policy may vary. One may wish to make a point; another may choose to hold it.
Some swear words though are now routinely allowed: “damn,” “hell,” “ass.” The cap: don’t pepper the paragraph with them.
Cultural demographic of a news outlet’s audience needs to be considered. The sex-laced words Andanar said in London (“pala-i**t”) and the president earlier said in this country (“l*l*”) may be more offensive in Bisaya-speaking areas than elsewhere.
Thus, they shocked us more than if they were said in English or in another dialect. Understanding came across instantly and fully. Not true about what Andanar said of Bisaya folk being used to uttering and hearing “pala-i**t.” At the bar or “tuba-an” maybe but not in a public forum where one represents his government.
The problem apparently is that the speaker thinks only of the audience in front of him, not of the other audiences, in multimedia platforms.
(email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)