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Why We Didn't Bleep the N-Word

Categories: Journalism, Politics, World

obama large-rev.jpg
U.S. President Barack Obama (file photo)

By David Studer
Director, Journalistic Standards and Practices
CBC News and Centres

Around the time we humans learn to speak, we also learn that our language includes wounding words, ones designed solely with the intent to hurt. Among the most powerful of these words are ethnic and racial slurs, the labels applied to "other people" to belittle, shame, and deride them.

Naturally, as journalists we generally avoid using these terms, and our Language Guide, like those of other major journalism organizations, has clear rules about the rare times we make an exception. We put a lot of thought into such cases and when we do quote those who've used offensive terms, the word is almost always defused. One such word, a slur against black people, would be described in television and radio reports as "the n-word" and it would appear online as n----r.

Sometimes an exceptional occasion arises, and we use such a word in full. The Language Guide also gives clear direction for this: "there must also be an identifiable public good to be served using this type of raw language... (and) ...it must be essential to the story".
One such occasion arose this week. U.S. President Barack Obama used that word in a podcast interview, to help make the argument that America still has a long way to go in combating racism:

"Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public," he said. "That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior."

When this became public, our senior journalists discussed how CBC News would handle the story. All ethic/racial slurs are offensive, but this one carries an additional unpalatable resonance of slavery and subjugation. Did the President's use of the term, in a public forum, make this one of those exceptional occasions?

We decided that yes, it did, and issued a note to our journalists advising that "While we normally don't use the word in our coverage, reports on this story need not bleep or disguise the word 'nigger'."

How did we come to this decision? It wasn't done lightly.

First, we looked at the content of what was said. The President was referring to a social change, one in which a word has become unacceptable for normal use. He didn't say "the n-word". For the quote to be intelligible, it needed the full word. But that didn't tip the scales.
Second, we looked at the source of the quote. The President of the United States--the first black man to become American President--obviously has significant credibility in this area, and that carries weight.

Third, we gave even more weight to Mr. Obama's purpose. He clearly viewed this as a teachable moment, calling up the unspeakable to make the point that while it has largely become unspeakable, this is really only a small measure of progress. Josh Earnest, the president's press secretary, said Mr. Obama had used the term to make an argument "that is familiar to those who have been listening."

So on this occasion CBC News did something it normally would not do. We used the word in full. We think the occasion called for it, but as you can see, we only came to this conclusion after careful consideration and discussion.

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