The Canadian Press, the nation's analogue to Associated Press and Reuters, has come up with an official policy on using the, er, F-word. (In case you don't know what I'm talking about, the sort-of background information about the word can be found here.) According to the news story on CTV News:
Its entry in the 40th anniversary edition of the 215-page guide -- the only vulgarity included other than "damn'' and its variations and s.o.b. -- In short: avoid it for the most part. And if it must be used because it adds a valuable news element to a story, spell it out. No f and three asterisks. No "eff word.'' No freakings, friggings or firkings either, for that matter.
Well. There's some candid virtue in that, if a CP reporter absolutely has to use the word in a quote, it should be spelled out starkly, not censored or euphemised. (Which means that any politician caught using the Word on tape can no longer count on reporters being polite enough to leave it out--not that reporters were ever polite in the first place, mind you, but still ...)
Note that this applies mainly to print stories; stories for radio/TV broadcast, in Canada, are supposed to follow the guidelines of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Code of Ethics (clause 9(c)for radio, and clause 11 for TV, deal with the use of coarse or foul language). (By the way, it seems it's the CBSC, not the CRTC, who's responsible for disciplining individual stations whenever a language boo-boo is made. That's good to know for avoiding bureaucratic delays if one wants to complain about the Trailer Park Boys.)
So why, after all this time, is it necessary to have a policy on the F-word?
"It's much more socially acceptable than it used to be,'' says Katherine Barber, the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.
"I hear children using it a lot. I hear them walking down the street saying it, and I mean young children who are only nine or 10 years old. Maybe children that age have always been running around yelling it, but I don't think so. Somewhere along the line it has lost some of its power, but that doesn't mean that it's not still offensive to certain portions of the population." [CP stylebook editor Patti] Tasko agrees.
"Daily journalism is very quick to reflect the way people use language, especially when it comes to slang. There was a time when the expression 'sucks' would have been considered vulgar; now you see it everywhere," she said.
"But journalists have to remember that many readers consider such slang offensive, especially in written form. At CP we write for every reader in Canada, from those who see our news online to those who read it in a small-town newspaper. Routine vulgarities usually add nothing of value to a story anyway, so they're not hard to avoid."
True enough. Personally, I have a theory as to why CP felt it necessary for reporters to have an F-word policy:
Your typical Canadian journalist sees that, down in the States, there's a president whose very existence infuriates a strong portion of the literate population. Up here, the journalists have to deal politicians who behave less like statesmen and more like sneaky schoolboys. They can only see movies which seem to be catering to those very geeks they spent their high-school years trying to avoid; they can only watch TV shows that are infected by the reality bug; they can only review books that are full of either airport saccharine or self-congratulatory drivel; and over all of it the bloggers have climbed onto their backs to fact-check them out of a job.
No wonder Canadian journalists have an F-word policy. They've got plenty to swear about.