Late last week, the president of the United States thrust the journalism profession into a world of s&!% when he, according to several people in the room, referred to nations in Africa as “shithole countries.”
General managers, publishers, news executives and reporters faced an immediate conundrum: Should they quote President Trump verbatim, and risk alienation from the public? Broadcast journalists arguably faced an even more serious dilemma: If they quoted President Trump verbatim, would they risk fines for violating the FCC’s indecency regulations?
In the end, some newsrooms decided to use the word and others did not. Some gave the matter considerable thought and conducted a thorough internal debate; some did not.
In a piece co-written by RTDNA attorney Kathy Kirby for Wiley on Media, she said the FCC has been ambiguous and inconsistent with regard to how it defines indecency, and how it enforces its rules against it.
As David Oxenford wrote for Broadcast Law Blog, even though the commission has sometimes given a pass to vulgarity when broadcast as part of a news program, “with FCC Chairman Pai admonishing broadcasters to ‘keep it clean,’ and with the FCC’s indecency rules still on the books, and any complaint likely to cost time and money to defend, broadcasters may want to be cautious in their approach to these situations, even in the context of news programs.”
In fact, some news organizations’ use of the word on the air has led to at least a few public complaints to the FCC. It’s worth noting that some of the complaints were filed against CNN, which, as a cable-only outlet, is not covered by FCC indecency regulations. Neither are other cable-only news organizations, newspapers, as well as satellite-only or digital-only outlets.
Some of the complaints were also filed against NBC News, which chose to quote the word once on “NBC Nightly News,” but only after a warning to viewers. The FCC has no jurisdiction over broadcast networks, although it could, if it wished, punish NBC-owned stations and NBC affiliates that aired the newscast with the quote included.
In my view, the president, albeit in a somewhat twisted and certainly unwelcomed way, did journalists a favor by saying the word “shithole,” because he forced us to use our journalism ethics muscles in ways we rarely have had to do. Sure, we have faced choices about whether to broadcast profanity in newscasts before. But profanity uttered by a president of the United States?
Longtime RTDNA friend Jill Geisler – Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago School of Communications, former Poynter Institute faculty member, and veteran television news director – tweeted on Thursday night, hours after the president’s use of vulgarity in an oval office meeting with lawmakers and others, that journalists absolutely should quote President Trump exactly, but also should tell their viewers, listeners and readers why they made that decision.
I retweeted Jill’s comment on behalf of RTDNA calling it good advice but adding that “each newsroom should make its own decision after thorough contemplation and discussions with relevant stakeholders.” That is a view consistent with the RTDNA Code of Ethics, which states, in part:
Indeed, each newsroom did make its own decision, many opting not to quote the president’s exact words, some out of concern they would provoke the wrath of viewers, listeners, and/or the FCC, some worried about violating community standards, and some, like a local television news director in Texas who wrote to me, because they thought it was just plain rude:
Ethical decision-making should occur at every step of the journalistic process, including story selection, news-gathering, production, presentation and delivery. Practitioners of ethical journalism seek diverse and even opposing opinions in order to reach better conclusions that can be clearly explained and effectively defended or, when appropriate, revisited and revised.
No matter what your perspective, or what your decision was about whether to use the president’s vulgarity on the air, this is serious stuff. Broadcast news organizations who hold an FCC license and did air the word “shithole” must now wait to see what, if anything, the FCC will do about it.
I know my language “off air” can be colorful. [B]ut I’ve always thought we had a duty as journalists, producers, etc. to make sure that language like this did not hit the airwaves.
Obviously – or at least it should be obvious – RTDNA calls on the FCC not to impose fines or other penalties on broadcast news organizations for making the journalistic decision to quote the president of the United States verbatim.
All of that having been said, as with many serious issues there is a humorous side to this situation. AXIOS’ Jonathan Swan pointed out…
Foreign media outlets are having trouble translating "shithole," the word of the week, into their languages. Here's how a few outlets have tried to describe the uniquely American obscenity:
- China: "Cesspit."
- Taiwan: "Countries where birds don't lay eggs."
- Japan: "Countries that are dirty like toilets" or "dripping with excrement."
- Korea: "Beggars' den."
- Croatia: "The place wolves like to f–––."
- Tanzania: "Dirty countries."
Would that our decisions about using the word “shithole” have at least some degree of levity involved.