The language of a newsroom

A male reporter writes on his Facebook page: Me to a (female) editor on being sick during the opening of political filing and the hearings on redistricting, which I’ve been following up to this week’s climax: “I feel like I’ve been taking this girl out on a bunch of dates and now someone else is going to bed with her.”  

He immediately apologized for his comment, knowing it was inappropriate in a workplace.

I said, “This is how newsrooms talk. It’s OK.”

I was quickly slapped down by a mutual friend. Sorry, John Robinson, but this might have been okay in the past. It’s not anymore, even in a newsroom, where salty speech is the norm. Joe knows it, and that’s one reason why he feels lousy.

What followed was a rollicking conversation about the appropriateness or not of that kind of comment.

Newsrooms, which used to be filled mostly with white men, were known for off-color language, sexist jokes, cigarette burn holes on desks and chairs, more profanity than you might hear in jail, occasional fistfights and frequent attacks on chairs, desks and trash cans. That typewriter with the sticking keys? Back in the day, it might find itself tossed out of a second-floor window.

Now smoking is banned, the floors are carpeted, there are as many women as men, and everyone has to go through training to understand the laws involving harassment. I once had to cruise the newsroom and take down photos that staff members posted in their cubicles that might be considered inappropriate or contributing to a hostile environment. (I briefly removed a pinup photo of a male actor with his shirt off from one female reporter’s wall. The language that resulted may have contributed to a hostile workplace.)

I don’t miss those days, but I do think newsrooms are different sorts of places. Journalists are irreverent and don’t stand on convention. Editors demand that they speak truth to power and that they don’t back down when put off. So, how can we expect them to be PC in a newsroom?

I know this makes me sound like one of those nutcases that blames everything bad in society today on the PC culture. Nope, not me. I’m glad that people can’t smoke in the newsroom. I support the limitation of dropping F-bombs. Newsrooms and news coverage has been vastly improved by the gender and racial diversification of the staff. Lowering the sexual tension and chauvistic temperature is a must.

But sometimes people who make their living with colorful, descriptive words can’t help themselves. And the image the reporter evoked fits exactly what happened. Sorta.

For the record, the female editor the reporter addressed? Here’s what she said: Your comment didn’t even break into the Top 100 Inappropriate Things (You) Said To An Editor list. And yes, we have a list. For the record, I thought it was funny.

Update: Michael Triplett at NLGJA responds. I agree with everything he says.

Romenesko also asked people about how the newsroom has changed. Some responses on Facebook.

9 thoughts on “The language of a newsroom

  1. To a certain extent, as a woman, I think you just learn how to let it roll off your back – not that that’s the greatest thing, but the fact is you can’t go through life trying to teach people a lesson. Often times, they think what they think and you just have to prove them wrong or move on. You have to stay focused on your own goals. It’s like dating – you can’t change another person into who you want them to be. You can influence them, but you can’t change them. It’s up to them to do it.

    It all depends on context. I don’t think this guy was trying to be hurtful. I think he liked the creativity in the metaphor. Makes him seem “literary.”

  2. That is one word for me.

    One of the many things I enjoy about being a journalist is that we do work in a colorful, offbeat place full of colorful, offbeat people. It’s a coat-and-tie job (well, sometimes) that also still has a bit of a bohemian feel.

    The more I thought about it throughout the day — and the more I watched the lively conversation my comment inspired, including some Ghosts of Newsroom Past who added their two cents — the more I thought that I may have been a little embarrassed to have said it because I was saying it on the phone, from home where I was sick, and not actually IN the newsroom. I think that perhaps in the newsroom I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

    I’ve heard some borderline (even over-the-line) things said in newsrooms, but I think most of us know how to keep the chalk off our cleats.

  3. As a chick (can I say chick?), I didn’t have any problem with the comment. It’s an apt metaphor, and it was funny. And I’m someone whose sexist BS meter pings fairly frequently, and I call people on it. (Want to see sexist BS in action? Watch last night’s episode of ‘Survivor.’ Made my blood boil.)

    While I think there is no room for sexism, racism or any other -ism in the newsroom, we shouldn’t lose our irreverence in the name of being ‘appropriate.’ A certain level of irreverence can make for great journalism.

  4. Pingback: PC, Language of the Newsroom, and Roland Martin « The NLGJA Blog

  5. I wonder about the people just entering the profession now. They — men and women both in the new generation — in general seem to be a little more open to sexually tinged comments, as long as it’s in a we-are-all-in-this-together mode and not meant to be harassing. ( I know, I know, how do you tell what someone’s intent is — or how someone else might take it? ) As an old guy, I try to keep a lid on it and appreciate my colleagues who ignore the occasional f(rustration) bomb.

  6. I work in a newsroom that is still mostly male, and I think female reporters entering one like that expect for some things to slip. All the women who have worked for the paper I write for take the more inappropriate comments with good humor, and the one guy who took things way too far was immediately fired. Everyone in the newsroom was happy to get rid of him, too. :-)

  7. Some random thoughts and observations:

    — 90% of complaints about “political correctness” come from people upset that it’s no longer acceptable to be an asshole. It’s the other 10% that you have to watch out for. But most people of good will can tell the difference most of the time.

    — Where one stands in the power hierarchy significantly affects what one thinks is funny. Too many people have forgotten what the ancient Greeks knew about humor. Humor flows, and satire races, uphill. The only thing that flows downhill is sewage. And in our society, white males as a group are still, by and large, at the top of the power hierarchy.

    — Everyone who thinks he or she might ever want to go into journalism should be required to subscribe to and participate in Total Fark (the behind-the-paywall subscriber section of for one year. (It’s $5/month.) You’ll develop both psychological armor and a better sense of humor — a much more nuanced sense of what’s REALLY over the line and what’s just intense or vivid.. In terms of learning about human interaction, online and in real life, It may have been the best $60 I ever spent. I’m still an equal-opportunity offender, but I suspect Total Fark may have kept me out of jail or the hospital.

  8. (Also, the members of Total Fark are, collectively, some of the best headline writers on the planet. TF’s take on the news of the death of Whitney Houston? “Whitney Houston beats Bobby Brown to death.”)

  9. I invite you to read the “Journalist of the Year” chapter in the forthcoming book, “City Son: Andrew W. Cooper’s Impact on Modern-Day Brooklyn” [July 1, University Press of Mississippi].
    Indeed, newsrooms are havens for irreverent and off-color behavior. In my chapter I acknowledged that if the journalists trusted each other, many inappropriate words could get tossed.
    Twenty five years ago however, a great metropolitan newspaper operated a hostile work environment, so hostile, four black journalists successfully won a bruising court battle.
    It’s noteworthy that bold newspaper has celebrated “Lin-Sanity” yet has been unscathed as far as charges of insensitivity.
    Apparently the management learned lessons after decades of appalling behavior.

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