Are Obscenities Appropriate for the Obscene?

A strife over waste-management practices between North Carolina communities and factory hog farmers provoked this article by Olivia Becker for Vice News. As you’ll notice, the article’s title, although I find it clever, could be off-putting to many people. Readers might not take it as seriously or be thrown-off from the true focus of the article: justice for the environment and citizens. Nevertheless, this publication, Vice, has a reputation for bold reporting ,so should the title and use of obscenities not matter as much? Furthermore, since the author believes this subject matter to be particularly foul, should the use of profanity be excusable?  Could it even be justified as a warning, though subtle, to prepare readers for the nature of the content?

Regardless of the title and infrequent ’embellishments’ used throughout this article, I found the statistics and information to be highly informative and thought-provoking. Although the author writes with an obvious bias, I thought the lack of comment from the factory farms was telling of their political involvements and the implications this has for small communities going up against large corporations.  I felt that the author did a wonderful job of ‘showing not telling’. For example, the final quote from ex-hog farmer Don Webb: “I truly think it would be more difficult to prosecute a hog farmer than a murderer in North Carolina.” is a potent ending to this story. This memorable quote illustrates just how strongly people feel about their situation and their lack of ability to incite change.


8 Responses to “Are Obscenities Appropriate for the Obscene?”

  1. I agree with you on the use of profane language in the news. The headline of the Vice article definitely grabbed by attention, and made me laugh once I saw what the story was about, so the word choice served its purpose. But by the second or third time Becker wrote “shit” I didn’t find it funny anymore. It lost its cleverness and seemed unprofessional. While profanity can work in some cases, its overuse in this article took away from the rest of the story.

    I also feel this article is missing a few things, like a comment from someone who lives near or has been affected by a waste lagoon, and quotes from someone who can offer solutions or alternative waste management techniques. Though it’s not as attention grabbing, having complete information is more important than choosing words that will shock the reader.

  2. How many times do we see the word “shit” on the internet? Because of the news medium, I wasn’t offended, just intrigued. I found myself even more compelled to read this article after the first statistic. It was a great lead and an innovative way to frame the story. One of the articles Becker linked was titled “Waterkeepers Seek to Stop Illegal Swine Waste Pollution.” That’s an appropriately descriptive title. How enticing is it, though, if you’re not an environmentalist or pig farmer? As Taylor said, Becker’s “Hot Dog” article dealt with environmental justice, but the title could engage anyone, regardless of their stance on environmental issues. I agree, though, that the profanity could be off-putting. With consistently shocking titles, is your readership going to increase? Will you keep those readers? What matters: wide audiences or consistent audiences?

  3. I agree, the use profanity in the title suggests the article is a novelty or comedic piece when in reality it’s a serious environmental justice piece. Don’t get me wrong though, I am all for profanity in journalism, fuck, I would use profanity in all of my papers if teachers were cool with it. Profanity adds a personal dimension to writing, it’s idiosyncratic and thus relatable. The use of profanity reminds the reader that the author is a real person with real problems and that reminder establishes credibility in the piece. However, profanity, like all language, should be used in the correct context. If the title were instead “Politicians and Corporations Engage in Feces Filled Collusion” or ” Wendell Murphy Jr.’s Factory Farms Are Full of Shit” then I would have a notion of the purpose and direction of the story. When I saw the title “The Shitty Secret Behind All Those Fourth of July Hot Dog” I had no idea where the story was going, nor did I want to. I, and I like to think I speak for most people, would be more inclined to read a piece with a title slandering politicians or corporation opposed to a piece associating the fourth of july with a shitty secret. I fucking love eating hot dogs on the fourth of july! I don’t want to know a shitty secret about the fourth of july, how dare you talk shit about the fourth of july?!?

    My point is that the use of profanity adds to a piece in some situations and detracts from a piece in other situations. In this situation the article was intriguingly awesome, except for the
    shit title. The use of profanity in the title of this piece is misleading, unattractive, and out of context.

  4. This article defiantly uses conversational language and tone affectively in that in reading it i feel as if I’m having a conversation with a friend. This topic isn’t particularly pleasant to think about, and if it was written in a more professional manner I believe I would be less inclined to continue reading it. It certainly raises questions if instant access to news via the interest has altered quality in a positive or negative way. I have a hard time picturing a story with this language on a printed page, but it didn’t phase me on a screen.

  5. I think there is a happy middle ground to profanity in news. I think there is a clear difference between articles from serious publications such as NPR and articles on Buzzfeed. Both are news and both are reporting information, but there is an obvious difference in the tone and level of professionalism that should be contained in the writing. From what I read and got from the website, I think this Vice publication would be somewhere in-between NPR and Buzzfeed on a scale of professionalism. While I don’t think NPR has any real advantage in using profanity, I feel that Buzzfeed would impose a certain comedic tone with the use of profanity. Both achieve different goals, but are, for their purposes, effective.

    With a more middle of the road publication when it comes to professionalism, I think this Vice article would have done well to draw readers in with the punny title using the profanity, but then to continue the article with a more dignified vocabulary. For instance, I feel that their use of shit in the sentence “the battle is being fought over pig shit,” is effective and useful. However, I feel that it is unnecessary and only takes away from the seriousness of the issue in other parts of the article such as the sentence “when accumulated in vast amounts, pig shit becomes highly toxic.” Perhaps a more refined word choice such as feces would have been more appropriate when talking about the science and environmental impacts this practice is having.

    Regardless, I would agree with you that the title may be off-putting for some, but I find it effective for this publication. What I do not find effective is the continuous and excessive use of “shit” throughout the rest of the article. A good balance of puns, shock-value profanity, and technical word choice would have been more appropriate for this piece. However, I would also say that their approach did not seem to take away from the impact on the reader as I was thoroughly disgusted throughout much of the piece and could definitely understand the residents concerns.

  6. I agree with Marley on this one. While I normally encourage light profanity not only in writing but in cable television– shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” use profanity to their advantage for not only laughs but to adamantly get their point across.

    In the Vice News example, the use of profanity did nothing to enhance the writers point of view but instead it hijacked the article away from its intent. No longer was this an informational piece, but instead, its tone became almost one of sarcasm.

    I do not believe this is what the author meant to do by using these words. Perhaps if they would have been used more selectively it could be used to enrich the argument. This article is a great example of using profanity for attention-grabbing: in this case it caught attention for the wrong reasons.

  7. I agree with most of the comments here in that it is fine to use profanity, depending on what the source is.

    Because this is Vice News, and because the topic is about hot dogs, I think profanity is honestly fine. It was smart and catchy and made me read it because it was different. I think the key is to choose when you use profanity, and not to use it just to get attention.

    If you are using it specifically to reach a an audience, like college student/etc., then at your discretion I believe obscenities are completely appropriate. In the end a journalist is a writer with a particular set of tools available to him/her, and if swearing happens to better present the message that you are trying to create, then use it!

  8. I’ll start by saying that I love vice. I’ve followed their recent expansion efforts and I really appreciate their journalism style. This article is a great example of the wit and attention grabbing message that vice is famous for. I think profanity is absolutely okay, considering the subject matter and the publication. Seeing as this is not the New York Times that appeals to an older, well-educated, “traditional news reading” demographic, this vice article’s title has the perfect level of “shock value” to coincide with the scary facts from the story. “Shitty” is a very fitting word for a story that mentions the horrible smell of an industrial pig farm that can cause things like brain damage or pregnancy complications. Ultimately, I think the saying, “consider the source” applies here.

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