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There have been times in recent weeks when potentially offensive language — bleeped, thankfully — was broadcast without a discussion beforehand with senior editors. That’s disturbing given the number of reminders that have gone out concerning such language and our policy. It should not happen.
Hopefully the points that follow are clear:
1. We have a detailed “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” Print it and read it.
2. Any clip with offensive language must be brought to the attention of the DMEs well before air time. Basically, as soon as you think you might be using it, talk to them. They may need time to consult with Legal.
Note: It does not matter if the words have already been bleeped. Be prepared to justify their use.
a. By the way, it’s assumed show executive producers and desk chiefs will already have been consulted.
b. The standards & practices editor should also be flagged.
3. The DMEs have yea-or-nay authority.
4. DACs lines must tell stations the specific language that is in the cut, when it occurs and whether it is bleeped. Those lines must go out with as much lead time as we can give.
5. If the words are bleeped, they must be completely bleeped. No syllable can be heard.
6. We do all this because we respect our audience and know that certain language will offend many. We also know that community standards vary around the nation and that complaints to the FCC can be costly to our member stations.
7. Overall, NPR is conservative about potentially offensive language — not permissive. There’s a key line right at the top of our policy statement: “NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.” The words must be important to the piece.
Questions? See Chuck, Gerry or me.
(Memmos; June 16, 2015)
No, we haven’t had a language mishap (that I know of).
This note is just a reminder of some things because there have been questions in recent days.
– The “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.
– As we’ve said a few times before, “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”
– We “Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word.” Yes, that means no “bull.” Not even the “b.”
– As soon as you know that you might want to use some potentially offensive language, bring it to the attention of senior editors. Here’s a recent update to our Ethics Handbook:
- Discussions Must Happen Well Before Any Broadcast:
- If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior editors (typically, the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor) must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion and enough lead time to give the General Counsel time to provide guidance. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or “bleeped.”
- This rule applies to acquired programs as well. As NPR’s policy on use of potentially offensive language states:
- “In the case of programs under the ultimate direction of the Vice President for Programming, including all acquired programs, producers shall consult NPR’s Vice President for Programming or the VP’s designee as soon as possible, but in any event before the program is delivered to NPR for distribution to stations.”
(Memmos; May 11, 2015)
If a word needs to be bleeped, no part of it should be heard. We don’t try to give listeners a hint by including a bit of the word’s start or end.
What language is offensive?
– The “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.
– A discussion of NPR’s guidelines on the subject is here.
Two related notes:
– The rules apply to foreign languages as well.
– Don’t forget that “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”
(Memmos; Feb. 13, 2015)
If a significant mistake is made on the air or online, these individuals need to know about it as soon as possible:
– Senior vice president for news (Chris Turpin, acting)
– Executive editor (Madhulika Sikka)
– Managing editor, digital news (Scott Montgomery)
– Deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes; Gerry Holmes)
– Standards and practices (Mark Memmott)
– Legal (Ashley Messenger)
– Member partnership (Gemma Hooley)
– Media relations (Isabel Lara)
Use emails, phone calls, shouts across the newsroom — whatever it takes — to get word to one or more of them. They pledge to respond quickly and to take over the task of reaching others in that group if you haven’t already.
What is a serious or significant mistake? There’s no simple definition. But we all know one when we see or hear it. Examples include:
– An obscenity getting on the air (unless it was vetted and OK’d by senior editors beforehand).
– An offensive or disturbing image being posted online.
– A high-profile “scoop” turning out to be wrong.
(Memmos; Jan. 26, 2015)
The attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the murders of its cartoonists meant editors at NPR and other news organizations needed to decide which, if any, of the magazine’s cartoons they should publish.
In a Two-Way blog post and during a conversation on Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR’s thinking was discussed. The key points behind the decision not to post the magazine’s most controversial, and potentially most offensive, cartoons included:
– “Photos showing just a few of the magazine’s covers could lead viewers to mistakenly conclude that Charlie Hebdo is only a bit edgier than other satirical publications. But a comprehensive display of Charlie Hebdo‘s work would require posting images that go well beyond most news organizations’ standards regarding offensive material. At NPR, the policy on ‘potentially offensive language’ applies to the images posted online as well. It begins by stating that ‘as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.’ ”
– “No news organization could seriously say that it doesn’t think about the safety of its journalists, when these cartoons might have been the cause for the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo‘s offices a few years back and the murder of its staff this week. But, we’re journalists. We’re willing to take risks. We know that sometimes we’ll have to. Editorially, we just didn’t think that we could post enough of the images to give you a sense of what the magazine was really like. If you only put a few, it might look like it was just little bit edgier than MAD magazine, and that’s just not the case.”
(Memmos; Jan. 12, 2015)
What did Mark annoy us about in 2014? Here are the year’s “Memmos” divided into categories:
ATTENDING RALLIES AND POLITICKING
– “Why do we get some things wrong?” Our most common errors.
LABELS AND WHY IT’S WISE TO AVOID THEM
– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)
LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE
– Ebola; infectious or contagious?
– “Immigration” (and related terms).
– ISIS and al-Qaida; how to refer to their links.
– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)
STYLE & STANDARDS
‘TAKING DOWN’ STORIES
THINGS THAT SHOULD NOT BE FORGOTTEN
– Get names (why we don’t put random voices on the air).
– Good grammar.
– Never assume.
WHERE TO FIND GUIDANCE
(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2014)
Everyone should be familiar with the “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” If you need a refresher, it is posted here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1273045-potentially-offensive-language-guidance.html
There are a few things to note:
– This isn’t an “English-only” issue. The FCC’s policies and our guidance apply to offensive words or phrases in any language.
– As the NPR policy states, “there is no room for guessing. If program material depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs or other potentially objectionable language, the producer must seek guidance as to its suitability. If the matter is urgent, please contact the News Duty Manager …who is available 24/7 [if you don't know the phone number, ask Chuck or Gerry]. He/she will consult with the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and/or escalate as appropriate. In all other non-urgent instances, please work through the normal editorial process, which for these matters, should involve consultation with OGC. While all decisions on content are ultimately reserved to the editorial decision making process in the News and Programming Divisions, it would be the extremely rare case that NPR journalists would not abide by the advice of NPR legal counsel as to the use of language that may be regarded as indecent or profane.”
– As we’ve said before, “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted [as soon as possible] in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”
(Memmos; Dec. 12, 2014)
We have not changed it significantly, but we have added to our guidance on the name of Washington’s NFL team. Here’s an update:
NPR News does not plan to prohibit the use of the full team name. The team’s name is the name and our job is to report on the world as it is, not to take a position or become part of the story.
But, our policy on potentially offensive language states that “as a responsible broadcaster, 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 [and online] has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”
That guidance should be kept in mind. Here’s how:
As a network, we do not have much occasion to report on this club. When we do, we can usually refer to it simply as “Washington” or “the team” once we’ve established that we’re talking about the city’s NFL franchise. This line, for example, was on our air after the firing of Washington’s coach: “Last year the Redskins made the playoffs, this year they were only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.” We could have said: “Last year Washington made the playoffs, this year the team was only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.”
Headlines about the team (on the few stories we might post about the club that aren’t about the name controversy) can be a difficult issue. “Seahawks Crush Redskins” can be changed to “Seattle Crushes Washington.” But “Giants Crush Redskins” can’t become “New York Crushes Washington” because a reader wouldn’t know if we’re referring to the Giants or the Jets.
Again, we are not prohibiting the use of the full team name. At times, it will have to be used – particularly when reporting about the controversy. At times, it may sound awkward to refer to the club as “Washington” or “the team.” Clarity in our reporting is vital. In some cases, achieving that clarity will require using the team’s name (for instance, to distinguish the club from Washington’s other sports teams). Guests will surely use the word Redskins during interviews.
But we can also be sensitive, avoid overuse of the word and use alternatives – as we would with other potentially offensive language.
(Memmos; Oct. 10, 2014)
A search today for NPR’s latest guidance on the use of potentially offensive language revealed that we hadn’t posted the most recent version.
So, here’s a link to where our latest language about such language can be found. It was written earlier this year:
The biggest change from the previous document is the addition of a lengthy section on “Entertainment and Music Programming.”
Fair warning: As we might say on the air and online, “some of the language in the document will be offensive to many readers.”
The section of the Ethics Handbook that deals with “using potentially offensive language” has been updated with the new link.
This is a good time for a reminder, because one slipped through the cracks on us last week: If there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.
Clarification: No offensive words were heard in the piece referred to above. The words were bleeped.
(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2014)
There is a lengthy document (updated in January 2014) that lays out NPR’s policy on use of offensive language posted online. It is radio-centered, but the same rules apply to what we post on NPR.org.
The policy statement begins with this:
“As a responsible broadcaster, 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,” the policy continues, and because in the post-Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” world, federal regulators “have taken a much more aggressive line on what they regard as indecent or profane content.” The 2010 decision by a federal appeals court that invalidated the FCC’s indecency policy has not prompted NPR to change its position.
That said, “there are rare instances where we will permit use of profane or indecent languages for news or programmatic reasons. Such an instance is when the use of such language is so vital to the essence of the story that to excise or bleep it would be to distort it or blunt its power and meaning.”
An example (fair warning … you’re about to see an expletive): While traveling with U.S. Army forces in Iraq, NPR’s Eric Westervelt was on the scene when the unit came under fire. At one point in his tape, an American soldier could be heard telling another man to “get the fuck under the truck.”
The NPR policy states that in this case “the use of profanity … is editorially justifiable” because it meets the test of being “vital to the essence of the story” and cutting it out or bleeping the word would alter the power and meaning of the report.
As required by NPR’s policy, “the piece was preceded by a language advisory in the intro read by the host, in addition to the DACS notices in advance to stations. NPR policy is to do both in all such instances for both legal and editorial reasons.”
Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the NPR.org audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive. When used in a blog, in most cases the warning should come before a “jump” to a second page. It should require a second “click” to get to the offensive material.
If used online, audio or video containing offensive material should never play automatically. To view or hear it, the user must choose to click “play.”
Update on May 4, 2015. Discussions Must Happen Well Before Any Broadcast:
If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior editors (typically, the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor) must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion and enough lead time to give the General Counsel time to provide guidance. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or “bleeped.”
This rule applies to acquired programs as well. As NPR’s policy on use of potentially offensive language states: