Lessons from the Jeremy Lin “Chink in the armor” headline
That was the main headline on the site for about a half hour very early Saturday morning following the New York Knicks’ loss to the New Orleans Hornets Friday night. Jeremy Lin had 10 turnovers in the game, and the headline was below a photo in which Lin was prominent.
By sunrise, the web and social media were ablaze with outrage over use of the word “chink”—an epithet for Chinese people. ESPN apologized and eventually fired Federico, who in turn apologized in an interview with the New York Daily News, claiming that his use of the phrase was not meant as a play on words:
The ESPN editor fired Sunday for using “chink in the armor” in a headline about Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin said the racial slur never crossed his mind—and he was devastated when he realized his mistake.
“This had nothing to do with me being cute or punny,” Anthony Federico told the Daily News.
“I’m so sorry that I offended people. I’m so sorry if I offended Jeremy.”
ESPN TV anchor Max Bretos was suspended for 30 days after he too used the phrase on the air, in a question to Knicks broadcaster Walt Frazier about Lin. Bretos tweeted his apology, acknowledging that the “phrase was inappropriate in context” but saying it was “not done with any racial reference.”
It’s true that “chink in the armor” is perfectly innocuous when not referencing a person of Chinese descent. It’s also true that we could have a spirited philosophical discussion about whether ESPN—not to mention millions of other people—overreacted to the situation. I’ll bring the coffee.
But in the meantime, what can we take away from Federico’s mistake?
Don’t write things that can be taken as racist. That’s the obvious one, but as Joe Eskenazi wrote in the SF Weekly blog post linked in the last paragraph:
Despite condemnations from bloviating politicians, it stretches credulity to imagine this headline was a deliberate attempt at humor. It’s a lot easier to imagine a late-shift editor inadvertently writing a racially charged headline at 2:30 a.m. than carefully plotting out surefire career suicide.
We are living in “one strike and you’re out” times, and while I think that’s appropriate when it comes to plagiarism, it’s pretty rough for mistakes like this. But as people who are really annoying like to say: It is what it is.
It’s a little sad but also unavoidable that you have to take a few extra seconds and really think about that headline, that turn of phrase, that photo caption, and make sure it’s not going to unnecessarily offend anyone, even the easily offended.
If the subject of the story is of, say, Chinese descent like Lin, you have to be aware of all the ugly words that have been used to reference Chinese or Asian people, and make sure you’re not using one of them in a way that would be innocent in another context. The same is true if the subject is black or gay or a member of any other group that has historically been the subject of discrimination and the target of bigoted language.
And that’s a lot of groups.
The bottom line: You have to keep your head in the game. You have to be mindful all the time, aware of all of the possible meanings of the words you’re using, whether you’re writing a headline or the 10th paragraph of your story. You should be doing that anyway. This is just one of many reasons why you have to be an alert writer to be a good writer.
Take the advice of this B/R Blog post about writing sensitively about tragedy: If at all possible, have someone else look at anything that involves sensitive issues. As one example, I never publish anything that even touches on the issue of race without showing it to someone else—this blog post included.
You can complain all you want that we live in a P.C. world where people get out of bed looking for ways to be offended, and that we as a society coddle these people and let ourselves get pushed around by them.
It doesn’t sound like Federico, the ESPN headline writer, is making that argument. But even if he were, it wouldn’t matter. He’d be out of work just the same.
* * *
Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images