There was a good discussion this week among correspondents and editors in the New York bureau about whether we can use some offensive language in podcasts that we can't on the air.
The immediate question was this (NOTE: sensitive readers may find the next sentence objectionable):
Can we call an asshole an asshole?
The answer was "no," we don't want an NPR correspondent to say that on a podcast.
The process, by the way, worked. A correspondent consulted his editor. The editor consulted his boss and the Standards & Practices noodge. A case was made, consideration was given and a decision was reached that everyone understood.
This is a good time to ask: How do we feel about offensive language in podcasts?
As an organization, we respect our audience and "set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive."
That line was originally written about what we say on the air, but we made clear three years ago when the Ethics Handbook was published that the bar applies to our other platforms as well:
"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 NPR.org audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive."
The environment is changing quickly. Some very popular podcasts do not worry about whether their language might offend. Their hosts' conversational and sometimes profane ways of speaking are probably pulling in far more listeners than they repel.
We don't want to seem boring and out-of-step. We do want to sound like America. But, the bar that NPR journalists need to get over before using such language themselves has to be set incredibly high — so high, in fact, that it's almost impossible to get over.
We're professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we're using or where we're appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there's more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn't mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.
We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!
The most common offensive words and phrases are among the least creative ways of expressing yourself. They're akin to cliches in the sense that they're easy ways out. We pride ourselves on using words that pop out because they're funny, provocative, rarely heard or just perfect. Again, use them!
You may be asking: Who needs to sign off on what is permissible language in a podcast, what does and does not need to be bleeped and what kind of warnings need to be given to listeners? The people to consult are: the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott).