Decency standards

The Northern Star’s print and online media are not bound by Federal Communications Commission rules that govern broadcasters. However, the Northern Star has developed its own policy that generally prohibits what the FCC has termed “indecency.” This is defined as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs.”

Northern Star employees sometimes will encounter offensive or vulgar language and explicit descriptions in stories, commentary, cartoons and ads. While legally safe most of the time, here are some issues to consider:

  • Is the language necessary to communicate the message? Or will it divert attention from the primary focus?
  • Is the author using certain words just for shock value without journalistic justification?
  • Is there less offensive language that would communicate the same idea?

It is the Northern Star’s general policy not to offend its audience by the use of shocking or profane language, or explicit photos or cartoons.
If you are not certain about whether something is acceptable …

  • Ask editors and advisers for their opinions.
  • Ask yourself if your mother would be offended by seeing it in the paper or hearing it on the air.
  • If you’re still not sure, err on the safe side and don’t use it.


It’s not illegal to publish nudity in a newspaper (unless the photo would be deemed obscene – see “obscenity” section). It is, however, not advisable in most situations. Refer to the above guidelines.

Red-flag words and phrases

These standards apply equally to the Northern Star print and online editions – news and advertising .

1. Usually a bad idea

Allowable in some instances, such as direct quotes, but don’t use gratuitously. Generally, these should be avoided by columnists, cartoonists, deejays and in advertisements.

Ass, bastard, balls (sexual use), bitch, butt hole, goddamn, hard-on, jack-off, jerk-off, Jesus (as a curse word), piss, pissed

2. Never allowable

Asshole, blow job, bullshit, cocksucker, cunt, dickhead, dickwad, eat me, fuck (all variations), motherfucker, poon tang, pussy (sexual use), tits, shit, twat

3. Also never allowable

All racial, ethnic, religious or sexual slurs. Not knowing what a term means is not an excuse. There are too many examples to list, and the list evolves, but here are some common ones that never should appear in the Northern Star:

Dyke, fag, faggot, homo, queer, nigger, spic, Jap, chink, etc.

4. What to use instead

If one of the unallowable words is part of a quote, use the first letter of the word followed by dashes. Example: “This is f- brilliant,” Bono said.

5. Use common sense
No policy can cover every objectionable word or phrase. Just because something does not appear on this list does not necessarily mean it should run without question. Basically, use common sense and remember that the Star’s newspaper and website are general-audience media. It is not in our best interest to needlessly offend that audience.


The Northern Star is bound by state and federal obscenity laws. Those often are unclear, but basically they cover gratuitous depiction –
in words, photos or cartoons – of sex or excretory acts.

The word “obscene” often is used by critics to describe anything from unpopular opinions to profanity to pornography. But, obscenity is a
legal term. Under the Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller v. California decision, a three-part test must be applied to determine whether material is obscene:

  • Whether “a reasonable person applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient (lustful) interest;
  • Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined as obscene by the applicable state law; and
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific values.


Over the years, cartoons have caused the Northern Star more criticism than any other part of the newspaper. Cartoons are subject to the same decency standards as the rest of the Northern Star – both in pictures and language.

In addition, cartoonists must be cautious about racial matters:

  • Do not exaggerate facial features or include anything else in a cartoon that would reinforce racial or ethnic stereotypes.
  • If a cartoon is commenting on a racial issue, be sure the point is clearly understandable … and realize that it probably will be misinterpreted by some readers. Is the cartoon worth the flak you and the Star may take?
  • Do not use animals to represent members of racial or ethnic groups. And, if someone could conceivably think that a cartoon animal refers to them, it’s best to avoid it.