3 Things To Know About NPR's Policy Regarding Offensive Language

Jul 25, 2015
Originally published on February 1, 2016 2:02 pm

Editor's note: The headline on this post tips our hand. But just to be clear, we're discussing language that some readers don't want to hear or read, even when it's bleeped or not spelled out.

This question came up in the newsroom: Should an NPR journalist say during a podcast that someone's an a****** if many people would agree that person is an a******?

The question wasn't about a real person. It was about someone who would bet against his favorite team or would bet that his lover would say "no" to a marriage proposal.

The editors at NPR said "no," the correspondent shouldn't say that word. The policy is that our journalists shouldn't use such language on the air, on NPR.org, in podcasts or on social media.

On Weekend Edition Saturday, we talk about NPR's policy on the use of offensive language. Legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins the discussion, and makes a passionate case that the network's policing of parlance goes too far. She doesn't think NPR journalists should use profanity. "But we do, it seems to me, bend over backwards to do something we shouldn't — which is to cleanse the news," Nina says, when NPR "bleeps" certain words said by those who are in our stories.

To help frame the discussion, here are some key points about NPR's policy:

1. It starts with respect.

"As a responsible broadcaster," the policy reads, "NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told. ... We follow these practices out of respect for the listener."

2. Things are different on the Web, but we want to be true to our principles.

The inspiration for this Weekend Edition discussion was a note this blogger sent to the staff. It read, in part:

"We don't want to seem boring and out-of-step. We do want to sound like America. But, the bar that NPR journalists need to get over before using such language themselves has to be set incredibly high — so high, in fact, that it's almost impossible to get over.

"We're professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we're using or where we're appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there's more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn't mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.

"We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!"

3. The decisions are made by NPR's journalists.

Sometimes, NPR's editors decide to put offensive language on the air because it's an important part of a story. For example, when correspondent Eric Westervelt was traveling with U.S. Army forces during the Iraq War, the troops came under attack. His microphone caught the sounds, including a soldier telling a man to "get the f*** under the truck." That went on the air, unedited and unbleeped. It met NPR's test of being "vital to the essence of the story."

Of course, the FCC regulates public airwaves and may takes steps to fine broadcasters that put obscene or profane language on the air. The commission's guidance to broadcasters includes the warning that "ineffective bleeping" — letting even part of an objectionable word be heard — might be cause for a fine.

No public broadcaster could argue that it ignores the FCC's guidance. Lawyers are consulted on these issues. But responsible broadcasters have journalists making the final decisions.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Mark Memmott, NPR's head of standards and practices, recently ask a pointed question in all-staff memo. It went - can we call a word that would have to be bleeped a word that would have to be bleeped? Now, we'll clear that up. Why does NPR not use everyday obscenities that have become common in colorful expressions all over the airwaves? And do NPR's rules change for podcasts, which don't have to abide by FCC regulations? Mark Memmott joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being back with us, Mark.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

SIMON: First case specific - what happened?

MEMMOTT: The question in the newsroom was can we say someone's an [expletive] even if it's true? The specific issue was whether a correspondent could say in a podcast that someone who would bet against his favorite team or bet that his lover won't say yes to a marriage proposal is, well, let's say, an A-word. We decided not to use the word in that podcast. In general, we think NPR journalists shouldn't use vulgar, profane or obscene language on any platform.

SIMON: Your memo sparked an awful lot of conversation, and we want to bring in one of NPR's most distinguished voices, NPR's Nina Totenberg, Nina, thank you for joining us.


SIMON: You wrote one of the great all-staff memos (laughter) of all time about this. Let me get you to - can I get you to capture the essence of it?

TOTENBERG: Well, I said that I didn't think that NPR journalists should use bad words or profanity. But we do - it seems to me - bend over backwards to do something we shouldn't, which is to cleanse the news. So famously there was a piece that Eric Westervelt did that did not cleanse the news where he was in a firefight in Iraq with a squad and there were a number of profanities. And it was completely right that they should be in there. It gave you the sense of immediacy and urgency.

MEMMOTT: I'm nodding in agreement, and we did air those.

SIMON: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: And it seemed to me that if you tried to bleep them it would've just distracted. But when we had, for example, the fraternity in Oklahoma, we bleeped them so much nobody knew what they said. And what if the example I said - what if a politician lost his temper at a woman reporter and called her particularly ugly name that begins with C and ends with T and we bleeped it but didn't put the consonants at the end? Nobody would know what we were talking about, and we do that all the time.

SIMON: Mark.

MEMMOTT: Well, we can be accused of being fussy, I suppose. I would say we care a lot about the words we use and think a lot about them. Are we launderers? Maybe, but there's an important point here. We are communicators and we do need to make clear what that word was and we can telegraph it in some ways. But if the stories we're telling are ruined for some listeners because our grammar is wrong or because we've slipped in a naughty word or two or that's the only thing they hear, then we're probably not communicating as effectively as we could. But like Nina says, when there are times we think it's editorially important that those words be aired, we've done it. We'll do it again, and it's a case-by-case basis.

SIMON: I can remember when words used to be bleeped and you could have the first letter and the last letter. That's no longer the case, right?

MEMMOTT: That's no longer the case. This is where Nina and I may disagree or she may have other evidence, but our guidance now from our attorneys is that if you're going to bleep something, bleep the whole word.

TOTENBERG: They're wrong. They're dead, absolutely, 100 percent wrong. I know of no significant case involving a news broadcast - as opposed to the Oscar awards or something like that - in which any broadcast organization was fined because they did that. I just think this is dead wrong, and I would - Mark, with all deference, I would fight it. I would not accept it as is.

MEMMOTT: And we do push back and the attorneys are basically coming back and saying they can cite cases where fines have been levied and have been paid. And they're worried about the stations - member stations - incurring significant costs.

SIMON: These words - as I don't have to tell you, Mark - are all over the airwaves. Does NPR risk seeming to be out of touch with the very people we're supposed to communicate with?

MEMMOTT: Risk that, yes, but we also feel as if we do want to set ourselves apart, and we don't necessarily need to get down in the muck with everybody else. I think like Nina says, you have to weigh it and if it's important, if it's key to the story, if it's news to our audience, we should debate putting those words on the air.

SIMON: NPR's Mark Memmott, who's head of standards and practices, thanks so much for being with us.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome.

SIMON: And Nina Totenberg, who needs no introduction, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

SIMON: And you can write to Mark Memmott directly at word matters - that's all one word - at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.