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Warning: Bad Language

(Note to readers: This column deals with profanity in sportswriting, and so contains some.)

While various writers stood around last Thursday night, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rode an exercise bike and discussed the Mavs’ upcoming game against the New Jersey Nets.

The talk turned to new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, and Cuban, as usual, had something to say. Here’s how ESPN Dallas described his remark: “‘He's a [expletive],’ Cuban said Thursday evening, using a crude term considered an insult to one's manhood.”

That brought me up short – not because I was offended, or surprised that Cuban had made David Stern wince. My problem was I couldn’t figure out what Cuban had said.

I found myself trying various terms and wondering if Tim McMahon (or, possibly, his editor) would consider them crude. Then I gave up and went to Google. That did the trick. This was the unexpurgated quote: “He’s a pussy. He doesn’t come to any games. Who the hell knows?” (Happily, every story I’ve read makes it clear that Cuban was kidding around. There’s nothing more painful than sportswriters being deliberately obtuse about tone so they can clamber aboard a high horse.)

What to do about profanity is an old problem — I always think back to the poor beat writers stuck with how to describe Cubs manager Lee Elia’s famous April 1983 tantrum, recalled here. My own interest in this dates back to the spring of 1998, when Mets closer John Franco blew a 3-1 lead for the second day in a row, and described what had happened as “two horseshit days in a long season.” Touring the local papers the next day, I was amused to find that the Newark Star-Ledger had opted for “horse[spit],” the New York Post had chosen “horse[bleep]” and the New York Daily News had used “[terrible].” (The New York Times had ignored the comment entirely.) I then turned those differences into a story for The Wall Street Journal, forcing some poor editor into the rather meta exercise of how to handle profanity in a story about how to handle profanity.

Now as then, writers render profanity differently depending on their own sense of what’s a good substitute and their papers’ editorial standards: One man’s “bleep” is the next woman’s “expletive deleted” is the guy next to them’s use of dashes or asterisks.

Does the web change anything about the fundamentals of how to handle profanity? In some ways, no — every news organization will think about its audience and make a call, which isn’t much of a change from 1960. But in other ways, yes — I think it does.

The web has eliminated papers’ geographic protections, letting us pick and choose from many different takes separated by just a couple of clicks. And so now we read with impatient eyes and itchy fingers. That unhelpful “[expletive]” in ESPN Dallas’s account threw me right out of the story. I went somewhere else to find out what I wanted to know and never came back.

But the web can help us, too. Online, we often present not an entire story but just a summary or headline, letting the reader decide whether or not to click. We can and should use this format to give readers proper warning about what’s coming – as I’ve written before, one of the commandments of web journalism is never surprise a reader with a link. With that in mind, the booby prize for handling Cuban’s comment goes to the Huffington Post, which included Cuban's term in the headline with an asterisk replacing the "u," and then used the word in full in the article.

  That single asterisk isn’t fig leaf enough to protect anybody who would take offense.

If we do that, we can worry less about profanity — provided we’re on the right side of the link. The Cuban story was only a story because of what he said; if you’re going to write about that, give your readers a warning and then treat them like adults, without making them count dashes or ponder words in brackets.

— Tip of the cap to Dan Shanoff.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.on Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
  
   
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