Using the 'N' Word

A listener was offended by a Fresh Air program in which host Terry Gross interviewed actor Idris Elba. There were repeated warnings that the interview would contain objectionable language.

"I listened to the interview and was shocked that most profanity was bleeped out during the interview with the exception of the word 'nigger.' Why was an exception made for such a controversial word?" wrote John Davis. "To make matters worse, during the interview Terry Gross asked Idris Elba what he felt about the use of the word, he explained that he felt it wasn't appropriate and the word — still — wasn't bleeped out during the program."

Davis added: "The word 'nigger' did not play an essential role in the Terry Gross interview. Please consider whether it is worthwhile to offend your listening audience for a non-essential aspect of a program. Bleeping out a word will maintain context so that semantics is not lost on the listener. Hence, most listeners will receive an authentic experience (to the extent possible) while the chance of offending listeners will be minimized."

Dear Mr. Davis:
First, it's important to point out that WHYY in Philadelphia produces Fresh Air and has complete editorial control over that show. NPR's role is to distribute Fresh Air, which must agree to follow NPR's ethical guidelines.

That said, I wondered how NPR might treat the use of the word 'nigger' on any of the NPR-produced news shows — All Things Considered, Morning Edition, the Saturday and Sunday Weekend Editions, Talk of the Nation and Tell Me More.

I asked Ellen Weiss, the senior vice president for news, and this is her response:

"In this case, the word is part of a scene from The Wire that was played during the interview — and Terry gave a warning — which is often how we treat the same situation. We don't ban the word, but we recognize that it is charged language and we handle it in different ways depending on the context:

1. Sometimes we send a notice to stations ahead of time to let them know the word is airing and where.
2. The host always gives a verbal warning.
3. If we feel it is being used in a highly derogatory or offensive way, we may beep it.
Again, we handle it as appropriate."

Ombudsman:
I understand that you thought airing the word was offensive, and I respect that. But I think in this case, it was appropriate for Terry Gross to ask Idris Elba, who is black, to discuss how he felt about this particular racially charged word. It fit within the context of their conversation and I don't feel it needed to be bleeped out.
END

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