Audiences less tolerant of racial or cultural slurs, more relaxed about F-words, BSA study finds

TV and radio audiences have a decreasing tolerance for racial and cultural slurs, but attitudes towards profanity and F-word terms are softening, according to new research from the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

The findings are part of the latest BSA research that tracks changing public views on offensive language in broadcasting. The results are used by the BSA and broadcasters to ensure that BSA programming and decisions reflect current community attitudes.

Participants in the Language that may offend in broadcasting survey* were asked about their general attitudes towards 31 words/phrases likely to offend, as well as their opinions about the terms in different broadcast contexts. The terms included swear words, racial and sexist terms, and profanity (including some te reo Maori and Samoan terms).

Key findings include:

  • Compared to the last survey in 2018, there is less tolerance for racial and cultural slurs. These dominate the seven most unacceptable words in all broadcast contexts.
  • The N-word is the least acceptable of all the words tested, with 65% of respondents considering it completely unacceptable in all scenarios. The C-word (at 57%) is the second least acceptable, with a newly tested racial slur.
  • Unacceptability has dropped significantly since 2018 for terms including the F-word and the results suggest a softening in attitudes towards profanity.
  • Pacific people are generally less accepting of offensive language. Racial and sexist terms are the least acceptable to Maori.
  • Young people are generally more accepting of offensive language than people aged 55 and over. However, they have less tolerance for words related to gender or sexual orientation than older age groups.
  • The 65+ age group generally finds offensive language less acceptable.
  • Women find the use of potentially offensive words more unacceptable than men (No participants identified as another gender).
  • Offensive language is considered least acceptable in more factual broadcast contexts with a host/presenter, in sports commentary, talk radio, reality TV shows, and programs before 8:30 p.m.
  • The use of potentially offensive language by comedians after 8:30 p.m., and in music and/or rap videos on television or songs on the radio is considered more acceptable than in other types of programming.

BSA chief executive Glen Scanlon said the findings provide insight into current views on the language used in broadcasting and reflect the fact that community attitudes are constantly changing.

“The community is making it clear that they will not accept language that perpetuates racism.”

Scanlon says the research sheds light on the important role context plays in how audiences perceive language use.

“It also underscores the value of audience advisories that clearly warn of language that some may find difficult and airing at a time appropriate to the content – allowing audiences to make informed choices about viewing and listening,” says Scanlon.

* 1,505 people aged 18 and over were surveyed from November 18 to December 10, 2021, by NielsenIQ on behalf of the BSA. The full survey report, including findings on the acceptability of 31 specific words and phrases in 12 different broadcast contexts, can be viewed on the BSA’s website here.

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James C. Tibbs