Trump’s Profanity: How Broadcasters Walked the Line Between Accuracy and Offence

When President Trump reportedly used the term ‘sh**hole countries’ (by now most people will be familiar with the actual words used so I won’t cause further offence by repeating them here), he not only insulted several nations and disparaged a continent, he also effectively threw the media a word bomb – how to cover the story accurately without causing audiences undue offence or contravening the Broadcasting Code.  Under Ofcom’s harm and offence rules, broadcasters must ensure that material with the potential to cause offence is justified by context and that steps are taken to minimise that offence. Ofcom’s equivalent in the USA, the FCC, can fine stations for obscenity, indecency or profanity.

As a broadcast compliance consultant, I was most interested in how TV channels and radio stations walked that line between accuracy and offence. This New York Times article perfectly captures the struggle.   In my view it was absolutely essential to use the word to accurately convey what the President said but with some caveats. Editorial justification is tempered by other factors – the type of programme, the expected audience and whether it includes children, the audience’s expectations of the programme and the time slot. News channels probably would have the most leeway due to their mostly adult audience.  I noticed the BBC 10pm news and John Sopel did use the actual word. But news programmes in earlier slots did not.

Coverage in the United States itself seemed to span the full spectrum. Some presenters and their interviewees repeated the word in full or it appeared on straplines in full. Others were more coy, referring to ‘vulgar comments’. One contributor referred to ‘S’hole. In one of its news programmes CNN said ‘let’s just use the words the president is using.’ In another, the presenter issued a verbal ‘language’ warning aimed at parents. On some channels the word appears on screen with asterisks. Interestingly, a few programmes took the opportunity to remind viewers of other offensive terms the President has used – sons of b*itches, rapists etc.

An interesting tangent to the story was provided by Alex Segura’s tweet and an illuminating Washing Post article. They highlighted the semantic challenges of accurately translating the term in Spanish, Japanese, Finnish, French, Spanish or Swahili to tell the story.

One thing is certain. The President’s language is likely to continue to detonate word bombs and provide challenges for broadcasters.