Using potentially offensive language.

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

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 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:

“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.”

October 19, 2011

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