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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Public editor: Why profanity appeared on the front page Add to ...

A number of readers were shocked and appalled to see profanity on the front page of The Globe and Mail on Saturday. The profanity was in the name of one of the bands involved in what was a wonderful feature called Broadsheet Music: a year in the review.

The feature on the front of the Arts section answered the question: What would the year sound like if it were music? To answer that question, The Globe approached Arts & Crafts, an independent record company, and the Canadian Opera Company. There were articles in the Saturday paper explaining how the six original compositions by Canadian artists, including Broken Social Scene and, yes, Fucked Up, were created. It also links to a multimedia presentation, where you can listen to the music that interprets the year 2014.

On Twitter on Saturday, a few readers congratulated The Globe for using the full name of the band. The band itself tweeted this: srsly KUDOS to @globeandmail for printing our actual name on the cover and not being weird #pushingit pic.twitter.com/8HsKnfOlaQ

But the newspaper readers who wrote to me were not amused. “We were very dismayed and disgusted to see your repeated use of the F word not only in the Arts section but also at the top left section of the front page of this weekend’s Globe and Mail. We are long time subscribers and faithful readers, but we cannot continue to receive or read a newspaper that descends into the gutter in this fashion. We don’t care if it is a band’s name, contrived to shock, the correct thing to do would have been to put “F-----“ if necessary.”

Here’s another: “I realize it is the name of a rock band, but I do not think we need to see their name on the front of The Globe. I consider this newspaper to be above the usual standards of a newspaper, so why lower the reputation of such a classy publication. I hope I do not see this again.”

Here’s one who thought it might be acceptable in Arts, but not on the front page: “To feature profanity in large type on your front page today does your newspaper no credit. Such language, if it must be used at all, would be better confined to your ‘Arts’ section, where it might be considered less offensive.”

A few who read their newspapers with their children thought it sent the wrong message. “I was disappointed to be greeted with a curse on the front page. Needless to say my children will not be reading the front page. I encourage my children to find better words from our vast language to express themselves.”

“Regardless of how this word is related to the article, I ask that these types of words be kept off the front page,” one reader said.

And here’s one in all caps. “SHOCKED TO SEE THE WORD F#####UP ON THE FRONT PAGE OF A WORLD CLASS NEWSPAPER. YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF. WHAT DO WE TELL CHILDREN ABOUT LANGUAGE THAT IS APPROPRIATE.!!!”

The Globe and Mail’s Style Guide is very clear on the use of profanity, although it did not anticipate a profanity being in the proper name of a band. Here’s what it says: “The fact that an obscenity is spoken in public does not constitute justification for including it in a story in any section of the newspaper, even in a sanitized form such as ‘f - off.’ There must be some overriding consideration that makes the obscenity news in itself, as in the Trudeau-era fuddle-duddle controversy in the Commons. In such cases, the decision whether to print the obscenity rests with the editor, associate editor, managing editor, editor of Report on Business or their deputies. On those rare occasions when senior editors determine that use of the expression is warranted, we do not use a sanitized version, but rather spell it out in full. Writers who think it justified to include an obscenity should alert the desk as early as possible, preferably before starting to write, so that the process of obtaining a ruling can begin. Furthermore, an obscenity that is approved for the body copy can only be published in headlines or other display copy with the approval of the editor-in-chief.”

It also notes, very importantly: “Our relationship with our readers is a public one, and in public everyone deserves, and expects, the courtesy of being considered capable of being offended by vulgarity.”

Globe Arts editor Jared Bland, who was part of a lively discussion Friday on whether to use the name, said the decision to print the full uncensored name of the band was not one made lightly – there was much debate among senior editors at The Globe. In fact, as part of the debate, a decision was made to publish a smaller version.

Mr. Bland said the senior editors “felt it was important to print it for a few reasons. First, the name in question belongs to a group of artists, and it is not necessarily the job of art to comfort or assuage; it is often its role to discomfit, as in the case of these particular musicians and their chosen moniker. Second, not to print, or to print an redacted version of the group’s name, would be, in this context, disrespectful to them; they are our partners in this project, and it seems to me that if we believe in them and their art enough to commission original music from them, then we owe it to them to respect their artistic decisions, one of which is their name. And third, the usage is, in my opinion, within the boundaries set by The Globe’s Style Guide: the names of the participating artists are the essential facts of this story and not to include one in any way would undermine what makes the story relevant.”

He noted that this was certainly a special case. “It’s hard to imagine another scenario in which The Globe would ever print such a word on its cover again. We did so this time only after great deliberation, and I firmly believe that the decision made for this weekend’s cover is unlikely to be repeated.”

This was a special circumstance since it is the proper name of the band and the project was an important one that needed front-page notice for the music. If you are going to mention the names of the band, one cannot be excluded.

In my view, the Style Guide offers not only a process but standards to consider to keep the usage to “rare occasions.” It should not set a precedent and, especially in headline copy, profanity should be avoided unless the word, or in this case the name, is necessary as part of the news story.

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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