Can a ‘Clusterf––k’ Become One?

Recently, editors for the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel decided to use profanity in an editorial critical of the university’s handing of COVID-19 on campus (see above). Not long after in-person classes resumed at UNC, editors for its student paper wanted to express their concerns for clusters of COVID-19 springing up on campus, and how the university was handling the reporting of them. In an interview with the Journalism Institute of the National Press Club, Tar Heel editor-in-chief Anna Porgarcic explained that the newspaper felt that it shouldn’t mince words about how the COVID-19 spread was being handled and reported to members of the university community. “My opinion editor suggested [the word] to me, and I thought it was the perfect way to describe what’s happening,” she said. “There were so many questions surrounding the announcement of the clusters […] which wasn’t helped by the University’s lack of transparency about exact numbers, that we felt [the] editorial warranted something outside of our usual style. I mean, people’s literal lives — our safety, our health — are at stake because of the decisions this institution and the UNC System are making. I was unsure at first if it perhaps was too unprofessional, but it’s not our job as journalists to sugarcoat what’s going on.”

The different sides to this case are interesting. On one hand, the word might have accurately described how UNC was handling the reporting of virus numbers, if not the spread of COVID-19 on campus itself. If nothing else, the editors clearly felt that the word accurately expressed how they felt about the university managing the situation and that the word play was appropriate. On the other hand, the use of the word begs the question if the use of profanity is ever warranted in journalistic practice. This was, of course, an editorial, not a straight news story; so perhaps the use of the word fittingly tapped into the views and emotions shared among the paper’s editorial staff. If the headline was part of a news item, then the use of the word might seem more outwardly inappropriate, unless it was expressed by a source used for a story and not a term used by a journalist covering a story.

Though it may seem trivial, this case brings to mind discussion of best practices. Is it ever appropriate to use profanity in a headline or in the body of a news story? Or in a news editorial? Under what circumstances may it be done? Or should it never be done? Thus far journalism organizations such as the Poynter Institute and the Society for Professional Journalists have yet to weigh in on the case.

What do you think?

Sources: Journalism Institute; Washington Post

Was it “Grave Insensitivity” or Balanced Reporting?


Harvard University’s daily student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, has come under fire after it contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a comment following a campus protest against ICE immigration policies. On September 12, Act on a Dream, a Harvard-based student immigration advocacy group, held a rally at which it called for ICE to be abolished. The Crimson covered the rally and later reached out to ICE officials for comment as part of its reporting on the protest.

Act on a Dream and other student organizations attacked the paper’s decision, asserting that it should not have contacted ICE because of its “long history of surveillance and retaliating against those who speak out against them.” Students were quoted in the story and identified, and photos of students were used. The group wrote a petition to get the paper to no longer contact ICE for comment which, as of this writing, has gathered 650 student signatures.

In the petition, Act on a Dream expressed concern that by contacting ICE, the paper compromised the identities of some students who might be targeted for action by ICE officers. The organization said that the paper “has an obligation, as a student news publication, to consider the safety of the students they are reporting on. As our fellow peers, they have displayed a grave insensitivity in the handling of reporting on undocumented individuals.” The paper did not contact ICE during the rally; it did so after the event, in the process of writing the story.

Crimson Managing Editor Angela Fu defended the decision to reach out to ICE, saying the paper follows a “commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small.” She added, “Foremost among those standards is the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them.”

It could be argued that Fu is right; asking for comment by all parties involved in a story, whether they are present at an event or not, is considered proper journalistic procedure. It’s simply a matter of balanced reportage. But in this case, did the pursuit of balanced reporting put student safety at risk?