The N-word: do we have to spell it out?
The Guardian May 25, 2014
One word is so uniquely offensive that it should never appear in print, some argue. But does that let people using racist language off the hook?
The most recent Jeremy Clarkson row, in which he admitted using the racially offensive word in unbroadcast footage from the BBC's Top Gear, raises the question how, or even if, journalists should quote those who have used the word.
In its initial news story about Clarkson, the Guardian used a direct quote from the presenter, which included the N-word spelt out in full. When news is breaking and there is no cast-iron rule about the usage of a particular word, it often means editors must make a swift judgment call. Context is key, of course, so the decision may not be the same for all stories relating to racist terms or actions.
My personal view is that we should avoid altering direct quotes by censoring or abbreviating them, even when they contain deeply offensive words. Whether intended to or not, it could play a role in attempts to sanitise or gloss over what the speaker has said. That said, a single reference to the offensive word somewhere in the body of the article is enough – or we run the risk of being gratuitous and insensitive.
The underlying principle is that our job as journalists reporting the news is to establish the facts and let readers make up their own minds. By using the unaltered quote and explaining the context in which it was used, the facts are laid bare for our readers – who, as the Guardian's style guide editor, David Marsh, says, "are grownup enough to handle such things" – citing the Guardian's coverage of the John Terry trial, where it was the only paper to quote the actual words at the heart of the case.
The Guardian's first readers editor, Ian Mayes, wrote that there was not necessarily a consensus within the company on how the N-word should be dealt with in stories.
Unlike other newspapers, Guardian policy is to not censor out or use asterisks for offensive words. This is where the debate becomes more complicated because I don't believe the N-word should be lumped in with any old swearword or off-colour phrase. It has such historical significance that many people deem its use – in any context – entirely unacceptable.
As the Guardian's assistant comment editor Joseph Harker wrote: "The use of this word among black Britons is not the norm. Indeed, most absolutely condemn its usage in all cases."
One Guardian reader who shares that view complained about the Clarkson article. She wrote: "Doesn't the paper have a house style and a position on the use of this racist word? It is just as objectionable coming out of the mouth of Clarkson, or anyone else, as it is seeing it in print in the Guardian."
On the other hand, there are those who insist the word has been reclaimed by black people and that its modern-day usage doesn't necessarily signal racism. There's unlikely to be any general consensus on that either, but whatever progress may have been made in reclaiming it, the N-word continues – and will continue – to be used as a racial slur and wielded as an insult by some people.
Even though I believe writing out the word in full can be justified in very limited circumstances when quoting someone, there is no denying that it remains deeply offensive to many people.
It continues to provoke a fierce reaction in a way that other offensive words simply don't. When reporting on the use of the N-word, whether in a news story or a comment piece, striking a balance between sensitivity and transparency is an absolutely crucial part of the journalistic process.
I would be interested to know what readers think about whether the N-word should ever be spelt out. Is it necessary for the sake of transparency? Acceptable in limited circumstances? Or simply never appropriate?