Which is more offensive: to use a four-letter word
or to put a man’s suicide on TV news?
A clipping from the Star’s sports page is causing tongues to wag on Facebook, with the cluck-clucking of moral indignation: subs at the Star were accused of being asleep on the job with an implied criticism that coarse language does not belong in a newspaper, and that stories about sex should remain off the front pages (the Alvin and Vivian case).
That’s a cheap shot at a journalistic decision, a knee-jerk reaction typical of many petty criticisms of the press. The suggestion that the sub-editor was asleep on the job is a criticism that could well be applied to journalists at any other newspaper or broadcasting newsroom for the gibberish that is often turned out. Too many journalists do little more than give wire service copy a cursory glance, because it is supposedly “clean”, a lesson they learned from their superiors and mindlessly passed along.
But the criticism about the language is more than the usual back-biting which it is: raising high indignation at the sight of four-letter words is an attempt at moral superiority, at imposing one person’s standards of morality and behaviour on another. Though typical of Malaysian society in general, and a basic premise of most fatuous stories about fatuous politicians talking about national and social affairs, it grates none the less.
Gratuitous use of coarse and demeaning language tends to cheapen any newspaper (if there is general agreement of what is coarse and demeaning). There are times when editorial judgement is needed to determine whether particular instances are necessary in context.
This sports story was about motor racing drivers’ remarks which went out on Abu Dhabi television’s “live” feed after the race. They were speaking off-the-cuff, using everyday casual speech. It is unlikely they were deliberately seeking to offend.
The two words were “fleeting expletives”, a subject which went to the US Supreme Court in 1978, in which the court upheld a government crackdown and said broadcasters could face heavy fines for airing the F-word or the S-word even once during prime time”.
That decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in June this year in a unanimous decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a brief separate opinion, argued that the pervasiveness of the Internet demands that the 1978 decision be revisited.
The motor racing authority FIA are of course concerned about the image of the sport, fuelled and dependent on live broadcasts to a worldwide audience.
Broadcasting audiences are uncontrolled: editors and authorities need to be mindful that children and families could be watching at such occasions; “bleeps” and 10pm “adult” programmes came about because of this. (In Malaysia, broadcasting journalists have the additional problem of casual obscenity in all languages.)
Newspapers don’t have the same concerns as broadcasters. Some newspapers are “family” newspapers. Some are unlikely to be read by children. A judgment call is needed: include the words as is, or use the common fig leaf of the asterisk? Say “sh*t” instead? Would you be less offended? Or use “shit” as it was said and recorded? Were newspapers who ran the Reuters story untouched being gratuitously offensive?
All English-language newspapers around the world face this judgement call.
Clark Hoyt, New York Times, 2008
Some newspapers do not use such words at all, preferring a descriptive phrase. Some will say “sh*t”, some will not say “f*ck”. Some, like the Guardian, would use both unflinchingly. It depends. (The Guardian isn’t your everyday family newspaper.) The New York Times prefers a descriptive phrase.
Not to use the “offending” words would leave a casual reader wondering exactly what was said that caused a fuss.
Morality and Malaysian society
Which is more offensive:
- to say “shit” in a story about coarse language?
- to repeatedly explain and describe sodomy?
- to say “that you on this day and at this time at this place inserted your penis into the anus of the complainant”?
To use “sh*t” is to take the same fig-leaf approach as to use the black markers of KDN thought police, when breasts and other parts of the naked human body are blacked out, even on reproductions of classical paintings.
Should the same moral standards of KDN thought police also apply in this story?
There are real questions about moral standards in Malaysian newspaper and television coverage of sexual matters — particularly sex stories used for political effect, and lasvicious descriptions of sex acts in crime and court cases.
Is the Alvin and Vivian story offensive? Does it have news value? Was it gratuitously used to tittillate? Is it more offensive than front-page stories about sex and Anwar Ibrahim, Azmin Ali, and Chua Soi Lek? More offensive than repeated use of video stills of men resembling politicians engaged in sex with women said to be prostitutes or staff?
Somehow only non-Umno politicians are known to have sex, or are considered news-worthy when they do
Maybe Umno politicians never have sex. Or maybe they can’t get it up any more?
Is the word “shit” more offensive than the detailed and graphic descriptions of sex acts, especially of oral sex, in stories about rape and sex with minors? More offensive than photographs of bodies of motor accident and disaster victims? More offensive than a prime-time television news bulletin, with video, talking about a person’s suicide?
• Newspapers and broadcasting stations have paid subscriptions to Reuters, AFP, AP and Bernama wire services and usually use the stories and the video feeds the way they are sent. There are notorious exceptions, as with Astro and the BBC.
• Wire service stories in newspapers are not the result of “cut and paste” jobs — these are found in web sites and blogs that happily steal online copy.
• TV and radio news bulletins also use the horrendous Bernama copy, very often unedited. If you hear gobbledegook coming out of the mouths of news readers, that’s often the case.