Papers avoid foul language but take into account social changes

Thursday November 9 2017

Manchester United's midfielder Nemanja Matic

Manchester United's midfielder Nemanja Matic applauds supporters after the UEFA Champions League Group A football match between Manchester United and Benfica at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England on October 31, 2017. AFP PHOTO | OLI SCARFF 

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EduCare East Africa executive director Peter Ndung’u complains that last Friday’s Daily Nation used vulgar and offensive language, not once but three times in one story.

The story, “What’s Going Wrong with Chelsea?” published on page 52, criticises the UK football club for allowing defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic to join Manchester United. It was filed by French news agency AFP.

Respectable newspapers the world over do not use vulgar or offensive language unless the words are central to the news story. Even then they do not spell out the dirty words; they use dashes, asterisks, ampersands and exclamation marks such as in f*ck, Sh!t, [email protected]#$%&*, bit--, and @ss.


They also work around the dirty words. Examples: “He called him a (expletive) fool,” “The economy is in a (profanity) mess,” and “He used unprintable words to describe her.”

Mr Ndung’u was offended by the word “bullshit,” which is sometimes shortened to “bull” or “BS.” Bullshit is the excrement of cattle. Most newspapers avoid such expletives describing sexual or excretory activities or organs.

They also avoid racial insults such as “nigger” and insults that demean people by equating them with “dogs,” “monkeys” and suchlike.

Bullshit is used to refer to a stupid or untrue talk. It’s also used to refer to something that is made up placate someone, passing an exam, or getting elected to office, according to dictionary entries.

The term is used both as a noun and a verb.

“I take issue with the use of the swear word, ‘bull--’ in your paper today,” Mr Ndung’u says. “Not only did your writer find the need to use it once, but printed this vulgarity three times for full offence to readers. This is not the first time I have seen such profanity in your sports pages, but it’s the first hat trick of profanities. And don’t hide behind the lame excuse that the story is from an international correspondent because you have editors! Shame on the writer and on Daily Nation. Apology demanded; will most likely be accepted. Embarrassed father and educator.”


The “bullshit” he complains of is contained in the following extract: “But in an angry outburst last week, he [Chelsea’s Italian head coach Antonio Conte] described reports of unrest at the club as “bullshit”… Around us there (is) a lot of bullshit. This is true. If I look at the past, I see it happened the same with the other (Chelsea) managers. A lot of bullshit,” said Conte.”

It’s true this is not the first time expletives have been used in the sports pages. They have also been used in non-sports pages. A brief search found 20 “bullshit” uses in as many articles. 

Whether a word is an expletive, a profanity, an obscenity, a cuss or swear word depends on culture and tradition. As a society evolves so does its culture and tradition.

Words that were once forbidden can become acceptable. Newspapers take into account such changes as they try to maintain good taste and respect the sensibilities of readers.

The NMG policy is not to publish anything that is obscene, vulgar, or offensive to public good taste. “Generally, what is in good taste is to be determined by the prevailing social norms,” it states.


It says the basic tests that should be applied are whether the language used is likely to be regarded as filthy, revolting, repugnant, dirty, or lewd.

Because of the evolving nature of society, we cannot always say a word is offensive just because it was yesteryear or it’s offensive in other cultures.

I would like to see reader reaction of the scale that met Babu Owino’s “mtoto wa mbwa” insults in September to be able to say with certainty the Chelsea story is offensive to the majority of readers.

Incidentally, the Daily Nation did not use the profanity “mtoto wa mbwa” in its coverage of the story. Editors worked around it.

I hope and trust Mr Ndung’u will not consider this a bullshit response to his complaint.

Send your complaints to [email protected] Text or call 0721 989 264.