Linguistic Hygiene at the Los Angeles Times

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 4 16:23:42 UTC 2008

Curses, etc.<>

Deputy Managing Editor Melissa McCoy last week distributed The Times' Taste
and Obscenities
and as her cover note to the staff said, the biggest change is that the
guidelines now look more closely at online content. What hasn't changed is
the overall goal: "to maintain a clean, dignified and civil tone."

So much of what The Times publishes now lives in the Wild West of the Web,
where practices differ considerably from the relatively staid world of
print. That's why, starting some 18 months ago, a Standards and Practices
Committee was convened to consider how The Times might change various
editing and publishing procedures. When it comes to cussing, the group saw
no reason to lower the standards from the ruling that has existed since the
guidelines came out several years ago.

That's the reason, for example, a story on Dec. 16 in
the midst of the writers strike quoted veteran Letterman writer Bill
Scheft as saying that "David Letterman, on the air without writers . . . is
the greatest ally the writers would ever have, because he would rail
nightly. He could be more influential as an on-air stone in people's shoes.

In fact, what Scheft had said to reporter Matea Gold was, "David Letterman,
on the air without writers, pissed off, is the greatest ally the writers
would ever have, because he would rail nightly. He could be more influential
as an on-air stone in people's shoes."

"Pissed off" is among crude language regularly removed from Times coverage
as part of what McCoy acknowledges is "a conservative standard" when it
comes to publishing coarse or vulgar remarks. When the copy desk suggested
the deletion and pointed to the guidelines (noting that "the rest of the
quote is still strong and conveys the point"), the editor of the piece, Kate
Aurthur, agreed to use the ellipsis but was disappointed. She says she finds
the policy "infuriating": "As a media organization," she writes in an e-mail
taking issue with the newly released policy, "we should certainly have high
standards -- above all, to accuracy. To that end, we should reflect the
world as it is, even if we don't like how people talk sometimes. I would
argue that being able to quote someone in full goes to that most important
goal of accuracy, rather than what is to me a slightly scolding, prudish
language policy. We might pretend otherwise, but changing that quotation
changed its meaning. Why would we ever do that?"

Along with Aurthur, a few other staffers also argue that the paper's role is
to reflect the community and greater society. To that, the policy says this:
"We acknowledge that a wide range of vulgarities are commonplace on the
Internet and elsewhere, but we intend to maintain a much higher standard."
And the subjective nature of editing means even those who support that goal
differ -- an editor or writer who might flinch at allowing "he sucks" in a
story might not hesitate at allowing the word "hell," or vice versa.

Clark Stevens oversees the style and usage guidelines at The Times and has
his own take on the use of an ellipsis in the quote about Letterman: "
'Pissed off' is an interesting example because it's on the borderline. It's
not, in itself, obscene, but it is a crude colloquialism. Would it offend
some readers? A few, no doubt, but probably only mildly. It's a phrase we've
all heard, and most of us have used. But is it essential to the story (or
the quotation) here, and is it consistent with the overall tone and image we
want to project to our readers? I think that's where conservative judgment
prevails in favor of not using it. But it's a close call and a subjective
one, with no hard and fast rule to govern it. And there shouldn't be a hard
and fast rule. We depend on the very wide range of often conflicting
opinions of writers and editors here to ultimately come up with language
that is clear and accurate, evocative and contemporary, refined but

The policy for the first time takes into account the online world vs. the
print world. As McCoy wrote in her cover note to staff when she distributed
the updated guidelines on obscenity and taste, "A less formal voice may be
appropriate in online stories and on blogs (as is often the case in feature
stories too), but a conversational style is not an invitation to abandon The
Times' high standards by introducing gratuitous obscenities."

So whether it's on or in print, curse words and crude language
are supposed to be used only when they are essential to conveying an
important point of the story. As just one example of a very complex issue,
The Times might quote obscenities used by an elected official if they were
spoken in the middle of a campaign in which he's portraying himself as a
family man.

The policy follows below, or can be found at this

Guidelines on Obscenity and Taste Issues

Obscenities, profanity, vulgarities and coarse language, even in their
milder forms, should not be used in The Times – in print or online – unless
they are germane to the essence of a story.

The Times will adhere to a conservative standard on the use of such terms;
attempts to be merely colorful, vivid, clever or conversational, or to
reflect  common practices of other media, do not meet that standard.

Only compelling reasons – uses that are essential to conveying a major point
of a story or that are necessary to cast significant light on the character
of a person being quoted – are acceptable, and such instances will be
extremely rare.

Offending terms should be eliminated, or paraphrased (but without using
language that still hints at the original), or excised by use of ellipses.

Do not replace an offending word with bracketed insertions such as
[expletive deleted] or with hyphens or dashes, as this only invites the
reader to fill in the blanks.

Avoidance of objectionable terms and quotations should begin with the writer
and the line editor. Beyond that, most decisions on the use of obscenities
or language of questionable taste, and on the best method of avoiding them,
will be made by or in consultation with the copy desk, with the slot as the
final arbiter. Issues that cannot be resolved there should be discussed with
the chief of copy desks or appealed to the deputy managing editor in charge
of such issues, or to the editor. However, the restrictions of this policy
are clear, and such appeals are a course that should be followed sparingly.

Communicating effectively across our varied audiences often means
differences in content, voice and style on the website, but not lower
standards.  For Web content, the practices of the printed paper generally
apply in straight news stories. This is also true of most feature material,
but here a less formal voice may sometimes be appropriate. In columns and
blogs, conversational style is encouraged, and more slang and informal
language is acceptable; it should not, however, be offensive to a typical
reader. User-generated content is moderated but not edited, and is granted
wide leeway in style and expression. However, submissions containing vulgar,
offensive or illegal comments will be rejected. Similarly, we will not link
to external websites that include nudity, excessive obscenity or other
objectionable content.

We acknowledge that a wide range of vulgarities are commonplace on the
Internet and elsewhere, but we intend to maintain a much higher standard. We
may describe and report on people whose speech is obscene, profane, crude or
crass, but we should avoid doing so at their level. When in doubt, think
conservatively. The overall goal is to maintain a clean, dignified and civil
tone in all writing, in the paper and on the website.

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