News media needs to learn to deal with Duterte's profanity

A lot has been said—and presumably will continue to be said—about the colorful language (profanity) used by President Rodrigo Duterte.  Aside from the primary “victims” of his tirade, the US and EU that is, at least one other person is cackling about it.

That person, who works in the news business (it has tragically turned into a “business,” right?) and who was once considered as head of the news operations of public television, has since been making repeated innuendos against President Duterte.  Most of the times, that person would post news reports and blogs which generally place Duterte in a negative light—or, at the very least, raise questions about his leadership.  In fact, quite a number of those articles posted either lack extensive verification or misrepresent the facts.

That person’s latest innuendo goes like this, to wit:

“Profanity, swear words, vulgarity and offensive phrases have become a regular for us journos covering President Duterte. Is profanity in media harmless? How are we supposed to handle profanity when it is the top leader of a country that says them almost everytime (sic) he goes to a podium? I know there have been an increase in the use of swear words even in the movies too. By the time kids go to school nowadays, many know swear words. But where will our culture be in the future if we don’t take measures to be more civil? Thoughts become words that can become actions. What if the profanities we're being subjected to progresses into violence? Chaos? We used to bleep profanity in news.”

On face value, there could be some merit to what that person said.  Just on the surface level.  Because I’m not sure which century or era that person lives in or wants to live in.  In a New York Times Op-Ed piece written by Jesse Sheidlower, he says:

“Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory.”

That person asks “How are we supposed to handle profanity when it is the top leader of a country that says them almost everytime (sic) he goes to a podium?”  Apparently, that person is either clueless or has not been keeping abreast with recent developments in the news media.  Mr. Sheidlower explains:

“Taste is a legitimate concern. But this isn’t a matter of sprinkling salty words around to spice up the content. These circumlocutions actually deprive readers of the very thing these institutions so grandly promise: news and information. At a time when readers can simply go online to find the details from more nimble upstarts willing to be frank, the mainstream media need to accurately report language that is central to their stories.

“The Associated Press stylebook warns against the use of obscenities, but says they can be printed if there is a 'compelling reason' to do so and if they are a part of direct quotations. The New York Times style guide states, ‘readers should not be left uninformed or baffled about the nature of a significant controversy.’ But all too often readers are indeed left uninformed or baffled, because leeway is rarely granted.”

Some of the international media’s most venerable organizations understand this and realize the need to provide the public just that: news and information. The New Yorker magazine has done so, British and Australian newspapers often print offensive words in full, and The Economist’s style guide reads: “if you do use swear words, spell them out in full, without asterisks or other coynesses.”  I hope I have provided greater context and perspective to that person’s parochial fears and understanding.

On another level, there exists growing research and scholarship which challenge the notion that the use of “bad language” or profanity is “bad.”  A study published in the November 2015 edition of Language Sciences contends that “contrary to the negative stereotype that folks who swear have poor vocabularies, a fluency in taboo language correlates with overall verbal fluency. The more words you know, the more you know ... AND the more colorfully you can express yourself, with nuance, metaphor and emotion.”

There’s another benefit to using “bad language.” Another study published in the August 2009 edition of Neuro Report says cursing makes you feel better. Participants in the study were asked to plunge their hands into ice water for as long as they could bear it. When they were encouraged to swear up a storm, they were able to keep their hands underwater 73% longer.

Even Shakespeare acknowledges the power of the profane, when he has Caliban in “The Tempest” declare,

You taught me language,
and my profit on’t is,
I know how to curse.

So I hope those still living in an imaginary Victorian Era would shut the fuck up.

David Nye as posted Facebook.


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