From the editor: When parents can’t shield their children from the adult world, they can help them make sense of it

One of my fondest memories as a child is sitting in my father’s lap as he read the newspaper to me. His stories were in print and he would tell of how he wrote them.

Many were troubling and he would explain to me some of the difficult things in the world in ways a child could understand.

When I grew older and started writing myself, I would bring my stories to him. He would talk to me to tease out parts I had missed. He would use his Ebony copy pencil to slash through words that weren’t needed.

At the heart of both the reading and the writing, there was always the truth.

Trying to find truth is not easy. Trying to tell it is even harder.

I appreciate the letters from the mother who wrote me last week, Sue VonHaugg, and the mother who wrote me this week, Kathi Reynolds, objecting to a misogynist slur we had reported on. I’m a mother, too, and I understand the feeling of wanting to protect our children.

The slur, and many others, were used against a young woman, a single mother, Sarah Gordon, who had set up a guide any Hilltown business could sign onto, taking a stand against racism.

Kathi Reynolds asks, “Does a mother really want to answer a young child’s query: ‘Mommy, what’s a c---?’” I would think, if a child saw dashes in a word printed in the newspaper, she might be more likely to ask about it, thinking of it as a guessing game.

Our newspaper, like any newspaper, covers what happens, reporting on things as they are. In doing so, we cover a lot of horrible news. A child, reading our paper, might well ask: What is racism? What is rape? What is suicide? What is murder? Why were two little boys killed along with their parents? Why did a mother shoot her kindergarten daughter and then herself? Why would a policeman kneel on a man until he was dead?

Horrible as they are, these are all things that are part of our world. Thankfully rare, they are all in stories we have covered. We would urge parents to read the newspaper with their child, to put news in terms they understand, to help them find ways to deal with it.

Times and technology have changed since I was a child. Newspapers used to be gatekeepers. Editors could decide what news was important to a community and publish those stories. The internet, of course, has changed that. Information is everywhere — some of it reliable, some of it not — 24/7.

Our job, as a community newspaper, has become checking facts to make sure the information we provide is reliable and providing context so our readers can understand it. We also run opinion pages to let our community talk to itself. We check facts there, too, with the idea that, if people communicate with each other, in civil discourse, we can find our way forward.

Our story on Sarah Gordon started with the passionate letter she submitted. Our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, talked to someone who had signed onto the antiracist registry, a real-estate agent, who does not take listings from those who want to discriminate. Zweifel also included the perspectives of the school superintendent and a social studies teacher. And, an important part of the story was reporting on the backlash Gordon had suffered.

We chose a sample of just one misogynist phrase we had not heard before. It was the adjective that shocked us more than the noun, with which we were familiar. We reported the words in quotation marks to make it clear we were not using them; rather, we were reporting on their use.

Just as newspapers are no longer gatekeepers in the internet age, neither are parents. Any child can do what I did with a few keystrokes and find out there is an entire porn milieu based on those two words. A child could also easily look on the internet at the list Gordon created and read not just the names of the legitimate businesses who had signed on to be antiracist but all of the slurs as well.

I’m trying so hard here not to use the offensive words that I worry I’m confusing my readers. If we had reported the sample slur as “Gordon has a d----- c---” would readers have known the invasiveness and nastiness of what was hurled at her?

Kathi Reynolds writes us, “I can understand how you would want to use it and all the other slur words in the online edition without blanking them out, but I disagree with your reasoning for using it in the actual physical newspaper.”

At The Enterprise, we don’t make a distinction between the stories we print and the stories we post; they are exactly the same. If we correct a story online, we run a print correction in our next edition.

But I understand what she is getting at. Many people think of the printed word as more substantial, as having more weight. Actually, though, in the case of The Enterprise, our print edition generally goes out in the week’s trash while our online version of stories, easily accessible because searchable, stays available for as long as The Enterprise survives.

Because we get a similar reaction whenever we feel it is necessary to report on a hateful slur, I have given deep thought to spelling out the words as opposed to using dashes to disguise them or calling them first-letter names. That strikes me as a fig leaf.

In the Book of Genesis, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they became aware of their nakedness and covered themselves with fig leaves. In the 1500s, the Catholic Church issued an edict that “figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting …. Lust.”

Classical statues then had plaster fig leaves applied over private parts as did paintings of nudes. But everyone knew what was beneath the fig leaves. It drew more, rather than less, attention to the private parts.

Giving hateful and hurtful slurs nicknames or dashes in place of some of the letters makes people less hesitant to use them. A letter to the editor this week, criticising us for using the “C-word” once in our story on Sarah Gordon and twice in my editorial, calling for civil discourse, uses the “C-word” more times than those two combined. It’s easier.

In my role as editor of The Enterprise, I have had the slur “bitch” used against me more times than I care to remember but “cunt” has been used against me only seven times and each is seared in my psyche.

Once, just before an office Christmas party, a man who had been arrested came into our news office and told me he would shove the rolled-up newspaper that he had in his hand up my “cunt” if I printed news of his arrest.

I was shaking after that encounter. We printed the story of his arrest but not the story of his verbal abuse.

I believe, as a woman, we can’t let that kind of language go unacknowledged. As a human being, I feel the same way about racist slurs.

And yes, in answer to our letter writer, we have spelled out that slur, too — when it was used against a young student, when it was used repeatedly against two high school students, when it was used by a clumsy classroom teacher who devastated a student by asking how it felt to be called that.

It is not always clear, when a “racial slur” is reported what is meant. I recently read an article about Roger Stone, who did a podcast with Morris O’Kelly, who is Black, soon after the president had excused Stone from going to prison. The story reported Stone had used a “racial slur.” I had to listen to the podcast to learn what Stone said was, “I can’t believe I’m arguing with this Negro.”

Certainly, that was a racist comment. But it’s a different level of slur than what is commonly called the “N-word.” Had it been spelled out, readers would have known what was said.

Our letter writers are correct. Most of our readers would know what we meant if we wrote the “N-word” or the “C-word.” But would they feel the horror, the disgust, the anger that they feel when they see it spelled out?

If you’re a woman, seeing the C-word spelled out feels like a gut punch. I won’t pretend to know what it feels like for a Black person to see the “N-word” spelled out.

Our newspaper does not use these words gratuitously. If they are essential to a story, we spell them out.

I wish I could use my father’s Ebony copy pencil to cross out all slurs for good. But I can’t. No one can. They are out in our world, causing hurt and furthering hatred every day.

The best we can do is report on them and hope our readers will turn their ire not at the newspaper for reporting the truth but rather at the people using the slurs. If a newspaper reflects the world around it, the goal should be to change what you believe is wrong in that world rather than change the newspaper that reports on it.

Instead of shielding your children from these words — words they will hear or read outside of their community newspaper and outside of their loving homes — teach them how they hurt and why they’re wrong.

If parents and newspaper editors can no longer be gatekeepers, we can instead embrace the modern mission of educating our kids and our community on the best way to express ourselves and how to best stand up to those who use hateful, hurtful words.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

More Editorials

  • The most essential thing to teach our children is how to differentiate facts from falsehoods, truth from propaganda.

  • Words can move people.

    On January 6, President Donald Trump’s words moved people to violence. 

    “We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s Capitol for one very, very basic and simple reason, to save our democracy,” Trump said.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.