Sometimes, when you’re a professional journalist, you have to decide whether to put “shithole” in a headline.
The answer was yes, on a dreary January day in America, 2018.
Shithole or s—hole?
On Jan. 11, 2018, a day that will live in copy editing infamy, the president of the United States reportedly blurted to a roomful of senators why is it that the U.S. keeps accepting immigrants from “shithole” countries, referring to Haiti, El Salvadore and African nations.
He suggested the U.S. should try to get more immigrants from countries like Norway, whose leader he had recently had a meeting with.
So, for a moment, let’s put aside the discussion of what that quote means in the big picture, how the president should be judged for it if at all, and what it says about his politics and his impulsiveness.
Was it true?
The Washington Post had two sources they were comfortable with and went with the quote. Soon, a tsunami of news sources offered their own confirmations that yeah, that’s what he said, all right.
Associated Press guidance on vulgarities, racial slurs and other rough language is to use dashes when the word is important but not central to the story. When the word is crucial to the story, type it in and hit “send.”
On the cold, dark day of Jan. 11, 2018, the word “shithole” was the story. You had to put it out there and take the heat.
When to use vulgarities, when not to
If you disagree with me, I fully understand.
Cursing at high volume when the internet goes down on deadline has long been a big part of my working life. Most folks in the newsroom wouldn’t hear me over their own profane shouts as they desperately dialed the extension for IT.
But when it comes to whether to use a vulgarity when you are writing in the voice of the newspaper, website or TV station you work for, 99 times out of 100 I’m going to say, “use the dashes.”
News directors, editors and reporters who cynically feature vulgarities in a headline just to get clicks are far more offensive to me than any word could ever be.
This blog is about choosing the right words – and “shithole” certainly is a word with a great deal of power.
I agree with the compound construction, though you could make an argument that it should be hyphenated because the president used it as a modifier – “shit-hole” countries.
But a shithole isn’t just a certain kind of hole – it’s two words yoked together by violence and harsh intent to mean another thing entirely.
The president’s word choice carries an unsettling connotation that the American people need to know about, so they can pass their own judgement.
And that’s why in this case you put “shithole” in a headline, and not “s—hole.”
It’s up to the reader to decide if that’s the version of the story they believe. May the discussion continue.