The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newspaper readers saw a lot of ‘vulgarity’ but not a lot of ‘shithole’

Vice President Pence, left, and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) watch as President Trump signs a bill on Jan. 10. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s initial report on President Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and the nations of Africa as “shitholes” didn’t prompt much consternation about whether we should use the word itself in our reporting.

“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim,” Post Executive Editor Martin Baron told Washingtonian about the decision. “That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

Running the word in a story is one thing. How to handle it in headlines and in the paper is another.

On the Web, the story got prominent placement on The Post’s homepage. “Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries,” the headline read. In the newspaper itself, though, the vulgarity was downplayed. The story ran above-the-fold (that is, in the top half of the page) but that a vulgar comment had been made was only mentioned in a subhead (the smaller sized headlines on the page). The word “shithole” was written out in full in the body of the article itself.

Curious how other newspapers handled the comment, we pulled the front pages of the 25 largest newspapers in the country from the Newseum website and took a look.

Of the 25 newspapers, 18 ran some version of the story. (Those that didn’t included the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post and Boston Globe.) Of those 18, 16 ran the story above-the-fold.

Fifteen of the papers mentioned that Trump had used a vulgarity or a crude comment in either the main headline or a subhead. (The split between those two was about even.) Eleven of the papers used the full word somewhere on the front page. Nine of them included it in the body of the article, but two — the Los Angeles Times and the Minnesota Star Tribune — used the word itself in a subhead.

Four papers used edited versions of the word. The New York Daily News dedicated its entire front page to the story — but edited a reference to the key four-letter word. The Tampa Bay Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal and San Diego Union-Tribune mentioned the vulgarity in headlines but resorted to editing the word itself in the body copy.

Trump acknowledges ‘tough’ language but appears to deny ‘shithole’ remark

This was not a simple decision for newspapers. On Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Twitter account made its internal debate public.

In response, social media users were quick to note that the publisher had joined Trump on his private plane during the presidential campaign. He didn’t carry the day; the story on the paper’s website still contains the word.

The paper’s front page put the story below-the-fold, with no mention of the vulgar comment at all.