When Expletives Are Not Deleted

Even when necessary, use of profanities still bothers readers

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

As with any other relationship, the one between reader and newspaper is made of love and hate, pride and disappointment. However, some situations cause immediate reactions of anger and exasperation. A typical example is when the newspaper uses swear words, vulgar expressions, and sex-related terms, especially when they gain prominence in the article. 

Before I continue, I must warn that this article contains an array of such words, just because it's impossible to discuss the matter without using them. If they offend the reader, please stop reading now.

A Nov. 27th interview with author Olavo de Carvalho, whose writings guide the president-elect policy decisions, rekindled the issue. One answer, in particular, made the rounds on social media and among Folha's readers.

"What do you think about sex education in schools?" the reporter asked. "The more sex education, the more naughtiness in schools. In the end, the school is teaching children how to take it in the butt, how to suck cock, they end up touching each other's breasts in public. They think that sex education is a good thing, but it's only harming. The state has no business giving sex education to anyone," said Carvalho.

A good part of the criticism focused on the interviewee's words than on the newspaper's decision of publishing them. But some readers complained about Folha such language in print. Many thought Carvalho only wanted to shock people. Philosophy professor Ruy Fausto defined it well in an op-ed for Folha: "Actually, the only accurate thing about Olavo de Carvalho's discourse is his swearings. They fulfill two roles: violence and familiarity."

Two similar episodes received different editorial approaches. During the 2014 World Cup opening ceremony, Dilma Rousseff "was hostilized by the audience with jeering and cursing," Folha reporter on the first page. In the internal pages, the piece described how the audience called her names for a full minute, with the presents chanting "Hey Dilma, you a****e," with the editors using the asterisks for decency's sake.

In April 2018, a Folha reporter asked Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes who had paid the airfare for a trip he took to Portugal, for a seminar organized by an institute he co-founded, a few days before the ruling of a habeas corpus petition in favor of former president Lula. The reply came out in the form of cursing: "Take that question back to your editor, tell him to stick it up his ass. It's a joke; this question is disrespectful, completely disrespectful."

Folha discreetly reported on the fact with an article titled "Mendes Calls Folha's Question 'A Joke'." At the time I understood that a justice replying that way to a legitimate, relevant question, put in a calm manner, was the news. The vulgar expression should have been in the titled and deserved more space in the edition.
Folha's stylebook doesn't offer specific guidance on the matter. It only states that copy with "swear words or content that can be considered obscene or disturbing" should be discussed with the Managing Editors before publishing.

It's not clear what is considered disturbing or when the words have enough newsworthiness that warrants publication, even at the risk of offending part of the readers.

Brazilian newspapers were always more informal than its counterparts in other countries, because of the inherent informality of our society. But even globally renowned publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times recently reviewed their restrictions against profanities and four-letter words.

I agree with this new emerging rule. If the obscenity or offensive expression is crucial to understand a fact of public interest, including the terms in the final copy is a legitimate choice.

On the other hand, the argument that reproducing an offensive expression adds color or emotion to the article doesn't convince me. Newsworthiness takes precedence over morality, but the newspaper should not endorse vulgarities on account of a supposed liberality.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language