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NPR's Approach To A Reported Presidential Profanity Evolves

President Donald Trump presides over a meeting about immigration with Republican and Democrat members of Congress, including (L-R) Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) at the White House on Tuesday.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
President Donald Trump presides over a meeting about immigration with Republican and Democrat members of Congress, including (L-R) Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) at the White House on Tuesday.

Note to readers: this post uses profanity that may offend some.

First NPR didn't use "the word" and then it did. I'm referring, of course, to the vulgar slur ("shithole countries") President Trump was reported to have used to disparage African nations during a meeting Thursday on immigration with lawmakers at the White House. At the meeting, NPR reported, he also "questioned why the United States would admit immigrants from them and other nations, like Haiti" and El Salvador, instead of countries like Norway.

In a Thursday evening All Things Considered report, NPR referred to Trump's remarks only as a "vulgar slur," and reporter Kelsey Snell said listeners who wanted the full phrase could look at the NPR website, where it was rendered as "s***hole." In the first 5 a.m. go-round of Morning Edition today that guidance stood, but by 8 a.m., NPR started using the word, preceded by a brief heads-up about the language, and eventually began spelling it out online, as well.

Listener reaction came in from all sides. Before NPR changed its guidance, a number of listeners expressed their disappointment about the decision not to use the word. Afterwards, some praised the change but others complained, some citing the possibility that children might have been in the audience. No surprise there: NPR's audience is wide and not everyone is going to agree on what's right, especially on such sensitive matters as the use of vulgar language.

I'll say upfront that I think NPR should have used the word (sparingly) all along. The president said it, according to sources who heard him, and the word is fundamental to understanding the story, and arguably his beliefs on immigration policy. But it's worth listening to NPR's evolving thinking and approach, which does not reflect a timidity or reluctance to offend, despite was some listeners (perhaps understandably) thought.

Here's a sampling of emails to my office. Chase McGee, a Durham, N.C., listener, wrote: "While I understand the need to maintain an air of dignity and couth, I feel it is puerile to bend to the arbitrary social mores of not using 'naughty words' when those naughty words are focal to the point of the story and give context to the narrative. The world is not a sterile place, I feel an established news outlet such as NPR mustn't try to purvey it as such, especially in these times."

Another listener, from Pennsylvania, wasn't so civil, "I can't believe that NPR newscasters will not say the profane word President Trump used in his controversial comments about immigration. This was an important news story and the term he used, 'shithole countries,' was the story. I can't believe I have to say this to real news journalists but WHEN PROFANITY IS THE STORY, YOU REPORT THE PROFANITY."

Yes, I agree that is an important part of the story. But. Listen to the case that Terence Samuel, the NPR deputy managing editor who oversaw the Thursday decision in consultation with the newsroom (and the Friday change, as well), made for his original decision.

In the early hours of Thursday evening, NPR was initially reporting on a Washington Post report, he said; "it was not our reporting." But more importantly, he said, "It seemed to me that the news in the story was not the word itself, but the sentiments expressed in the comparison with Norway. I wanted to make sure that we told that story, rather than getting hung up on the word, which is exactly what happened, I think. We got hung up on the word." He said he was referring to the news media overall.

He elaborated, "At the end of the day I knew it would be harder to tell the story without using the word but I thought it was an effort worth making because the larger story was, it's not that he was talking about 'shithole countries' it's that he was comparing people, and disparaging people. I thought that was the story worth telling. Given what we know about how the president talks, the shocking language was actually not that shocking. So I thought particularly for broadcast the word could be distracting."

I asked him about the assumption among some listeners that the decision was made so as not to offend supporters of the administration. He responded: "It plays into all kinds of things that I think are perceptions that are not borne out in reality. There's a perception that we are too hard on the president, there's a perception that we protect the president. The fact is, when we have good reporting about the way he does it, we tell people what we know. Not saying 'shithole' is not hiding anything, it's just not saying 'shithole.'"

But as Samuel noted, the story quickly did become first and foremost about "the word." That was clear by Friday morning, when the president took to Twitter to say, somewhat vaguely, that he had used "tough" language during the meeting but "not the language used" in the news reports. That meant NPR would have had to contort itself to tell the story without using the word, Samuel noted, adding, "Hence the change."

Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, put out revised guidance just before 9 a.m. today:

"With the president having now addressed the reports, we feel is it necessary to say the word 'shithole' so that listeners have the full context.

But, the word should be heard very sparingly. No more than one use of the word each hour in the main shows is enough. Newscast, as you always do, stagger the reports.

Don't include it in the body of spots that will be repeated throughout the day. Do give listeners a heads-up that a vulgar word is coming their way. We of course will continue to add the context that makes clear why this is important. Obviously, the president's tweet is important information.

There are strong editorial reasons for taking this step and we should be clear about those reasons in the discussions we have on the air. The reports about the language used in the meeting have affected negotiations over DACA, they have had diplomatic repercussions and they are renewing charges of racism aimed at the president. For the audience to understand what's happening, given the president's denial, we feel it's important for them to get all the information."

The word was also being spelled out in online stories, although not in headlines. An editor's note is being added to all online stories that reads:

Editor's note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language. It is "absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told."

Still to come are decisions about how long NPR will continue using the word.

One aside: Some listeners have referenced Federal Communications Commission regulations when asking about NPR's thinking around this issue. Profanity is generally prohibited between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., but cases are evaluated individually and the FCC takes into account context (including news value). If listeners lodge complaints, stations could incur legal fees defending the decision or see delays in renewing their broadcast licenses. Memmott said, "I think we have a strong case. This is news. This is important news."

Friday's All Things Considered included an interview with Memmott, explaining NPR's thinking.

He told me that, as NPR's evolving approach showed, "The key in situations like this is that it gets talked about." The language call, he added, "could have gone either way."

I agree. Decisions are not always clear-cut; other news organizations made their own differing calls. In this case, while I think NPR should have used the word from the get-go, Samuel's news judgment was thoughtful and thought-provoking.

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Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.