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Words matter

February 28, 2008 - Jennifer Houtman
The re-assignment of Mark Doebrich over inappropriate and offensive language sparked a lot of discussion online and in the Times newsroom about what's considered appropriate talk for the workplace and what isn't.

The newsrooms I worked in as a young reporter looked a lot different from the newsroom I work in today. When I started in this business about 20 years ago, people were still smoking in newsrooms. I can remember my first day at the Tribune-Chronicle in Warren, Ohio (near Youngstown). All of the smokers were sitting in one corner of the room. There was no special ventilation, I don't think the windows in our second-floor newsroom even opened. The idea was to group the smokers together away from everyone else so it would be less of a problem for those of us who didn't smoke. A short time later, the smoking section was moved around the corner to a boiler room. Eventually they put a couch and a table in there because my city editor at the time was a chain smoker and spent so much time in there.

I didn't smoke, but I spent a lot of time in the boiler room too, hashing out story ideas, getting direction from my editor, sometimes just shooting the breeze. And breathing a lot of second-hand smoke.

Eventually, the smokers were moved out of the building. Back then, there was a lot of cussing in that newsroom, too. But that was more or less the norm. Newsrooms are stressful places. There are deadlines, sensitive stories, pressures that build and letting a cussword fly was often the way journalists, especially editors, let off steam. When I was younger, I would occasionally chime in. But as I got older, and moved up the ranks into management, I understood how an off-color comment can make people uncomfortable. When you're in a position of authority, you can't let that happen.

Like smoking, swearing in the newsroom is less accepted than it used to be. I think that's a good thing. I have to admit that the Times newsroom is one of the calmest, quietest newsrooms I've ever worked in. In my old age, I appreciate that. But because we're a small newsroom everyone can overhear everyone else. It means you have to be careful about what you say, and because we're a close-knit group, it's important no one is offended.

It's just common courtesy.


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