Language Matters


download (82)One way in which these primaries are changing American political journalism is linguistic.  In a campaign characterised by crassness and obscenity, news outlets have struggled to report on the vulgar and profane language used by candidates without breaking their own style guidelines.   In a somewhat po-faced piece, the Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent explained how the AP decides how low to go,

Our first reaction to Trump saying “pussy” was that the specific word he used wasn’t essential to convey. So we wrote: “When an audience member shouted out an insult directed at Cruz — a vulgar term for ‘coward’ — Trump repeated the term and jokingly reprimanded the woman.”

My own feeling was that it would have been OK to use the word. A couple of weeks later, we used the actual word in a story about Trump’s speaking and tweeting style.

As for “batshit,” you could argue it was hardly necessary to quote that one word in [Republican Senator Lindsey] Graham’s lengthy diatribe against Trump and the Republicans. But when a key senator and former presidential candidate becomes so worked up that he uses such vocabulary, that’s news in itself. We decided to use the word in our text services for newspapers and online.

The Wall Street Journal’s policy has been “use of impolite words should still be rare“.  Hmm, good luck with that. These linguistic problems will become more intense in the light of a new anti-Trump ad funded by a Republican group.  Here’s an attempt to describe it by PR Newswire,

In the new ad, a television screen positioned in front of a White House lectern shows Trump claiming, “I went to an Ivy League school.  I’m very highly educated.  I know words… I have the best words.”  But the following scenes display Trump at public appearances uttering bleeped-out profanities and vulgarities including “motherf*****,” “a**,” “p***y,” “d**n,” “s***,” and “f***.”

But bad language = coverage: the Atlantic’s Headline tracker shows that Donald Trump is getting 2.5 times more television coverage than any other candidate.   The New York Times insult tracker is here, which lhow Trump has used Twitter “to lob insults at presidential candidates,journalists, news organizations, nations, a Neil Young song and even a lectern in the Oval Office.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 22.17.03 Web outlets tend to have a looser policy on profanity.  Buzzfeed’s editorial standards and ethics guide says, “Profanity: We speak the language of the internet — which is often hilarious and often profane.  As such, profanity is permitted on BuzzFeed.”   Its style guide spells out guidance on which words can be used and which perhaps should not (“more sensitive words, like the c-word or n-word, should generally be styled thusly; OK to spell out n-word if it appears in a quote; in song lyrics, use asterisks except for the first and last letters.”).

On Morning Edition today, one more example of how “the coarse discourse of this political season has seeped deep into the fabric of our society”, as described by Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackstone.   He was talking about two incidents at high school basketball games where  students chanted, “Trump! Trump!” as a racial epithet at Latino students.  Here’s one of those incidents, as described by Oregon Live,

A Catholic high school in Indiana started an investigation Monday after some of its students, waving a picture of Donald Trump, chanted “build a wall” at a basketball team comprised mostly of Latino players.

Fans of the opposing team shouted back, “You’re a racist” and “Sí, se puede” (Spanish for “Yes, we can”).

Footage of the war photographer, Chris Morris, being choke-slammed at a Trump rally is here, and as a PSA, here’s the John Oliver takedown of #donalddrumpf.    As a measure of Oliver’s influence, after this came out, there were more online searches for Donald Drumpf than there were for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.

ASSIGNMENT: Photo story for March 13 9pm.


  1. The Counted (Guardian)
  2. What are the Best Practices for Crowdsourcing the Reporting Process? (Nieman Lab)
  3. Crowdsourcing Done Right (CJR)