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The breakfast test

"The breakfast test" is a term of art in newspaper journalism. It identifies our habitual skittishness about publishing language or images that would make readers spew into their cornflakes as they read the morning paper. Photograph of a dead body? Racy language? Graphic description? An editor will want to know whether they pass the breakfast test.

My former colleague Ann LoLordo was brought up short by an op-ed essay last week about the Maryland State Fair. Written by Lauren Eisenberg Davis, it described—vividly—the births of livestock in the animal barn. She asked me whether it should have been considered acceptable under Sun standards for publication.

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Here's where you may wish to guard your gorge:

In Ms. Davis's article, when a sow after giving birth to piglets expelled "something that looked like a string of sausages," the animal sciences student on hand helpfully explained, to the parents' dismay, that it was the placentas. Elsewhere, a cow, having given birth to a calf, calmly ate the placenta as the "amniotic sac, still filled with fluid, emerged below the cow's tail and hung there, pendulous, fluids gushing out around it."

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Ewww, the children said, and so may you.

But Ms. Davis's goal was not to gross you out. She has an argument to support with these details, and the argument is that there is something the matter with us if we watch without remark raunchy movies and endure barrages of wink-wink-nudge-nudge salacious jokes* while being squeamish about the natural functions. And to do that, she had to remind us what some of those natural functions are.

I have been a breakfast-tester and enforcer of modesty at newspapers my whole career as a journalist, and I often grow tired of it. Of the coy circumlocutions—you know, "made her perform a sex act on him" in a crime story, or the dashes and asterisks with which we disguise words that everyone knows.** Of the assumption that every reader is a Mrs. Grundy.

So I am pleased that for Ms. Davis, our editorial page staff was willing to forgo our habitual prissiness to allow her some graphic language to make an important point.

*Can someone explain to me how it is that Two and a Half Men is still on the air?

**When we let something through, readers typically call or write to complain that our coarseness will corrupt the children. Can someone explain to me who and where all these children who read newspapers are to be found?


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