‘Chink’ headline raises question: How responsible are we for things we do not know?

Anthony Federico has written that he did not realize that “chink in the armor” could be an offensive term, and I believe him. Nothing in his personal history suggests what in the law is called “mens rea,” that is, a mind filled with with vicious intent. Even without a history of malfeasance or a sign of ill will, Federico lost his job at ESPN. I hope he finds another soon, and that someone will read this essay and hire him.

Is it possible that a journalist — or any adult — would not know that the word “chink” (usually with a capital letter) was a racist term for a person of Chinese origin? I was born on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1948 and was often walked to Chinatown for lunch. Our family doctor was Chinese, Dr. Loo. I never heard my parents use the term “Chink,” but it was common among white people as a reference to Chinese businesses. To “go to the Chinks” involved only two things: restaurants or laundries.

That is why when I read Jason Fry’s commentary on the ESPN controversy I was surprised to learn that there was evidence that the terrible mistake was inadvertent. How could it be?

Believe me when I say that I know newsrooms, the old ones and the new ones, and especially sports departments. There is always the equivalent of locker room chatter in what was once called the “toy department,” much of it immature, sexist, homophobic, as politically incorrect as one could be without getting fired or arrested.

Back in the day this involved the posting or passing around of photos or headlines that could entertain the troops, but were not be published. One I thought was hysterical showed a first basemen, ball in glove, trying to tag a runner right between his splayed legs. The sports editor showed me the photo, which made me wince, and then said solemnly “The Pawnbroker,” which, if you don’t get it, was a joke about three balls.

If you did not get that joke, are you somehow responsible for not getting it? Should you be marked down on your editor’s report card for having a clean mind and a pure heart?

An English term for balls (or testicles) is bollocks or bollix. “Never Mind the Bollocks” was the title of a studio album produced by the Sex Pistols, one of the most influential bands of the British and American punk rock movements.

Thursday I asked two former editors, Stephen Buckley, now Poynter’s dean, and Jim Naughton, former Poynter president, if they had ever heard the word “bollocks.” Both knew it in the American sense of “confused” or “mixed up,” as in “all bollixed up.” I informed  them that in England it was considered highly offensive, even obscene, perhaps as crude as the f-word, and certainly not to be used in polite company.

How did I know that? Because I once used the term in the presence of a colleague who happens to be British, and who gave me a withering look that informed me that I had stepped over an important line. But what if you can’t see that line?

When Don Imus referred to women basketball players at Rutgers as “nappy-headed hos,” he used the phrase with impunity and full knowledge of its offensive meaning. Imus lives on one end of the spectrum of language sensibility and responsibility, the one that interprets the First Amendment as giving him the freedom to offend. The ironic value of the Imus culture is that no crude epithet or pun is likely to be used unintentionally.

At the other end of the spectrum is the censorious land of political correctness, a place where in a restaurant Naughton was criticized for his use of the phrase “Dutch treat” for the suggestion that the Dutch are parsimonious. It is a place where you may have to be careful of a headline about an Asian basketball player “driving to the basket and shooting” because of stereotypes that associate Asians with cars or cameras.

Do I think that Anthony Federico, the headline writer who used the cliche “chink in the armor” in one of its only possible offensive contexts, should have gotten off scot-free?

(If you did not recognize that “scot-free” is considered by some an offensive term, you should not be writing headlines about whether Bobby Thomson, known as “the flying Scot,” was the recipient of a stolen sign before hitting in 1951 one of baseball’s most memorable home runs.)

These ideas and issues are nothing new to ESPN and other big news organizations. Rob King, editor of ESPN Digital, has come to Poynter several times to teach aspiring and veteran sports journalists about the importance of diversity in their coverage of sports. He knows what it takes to get people to open up on issues of race. I’ve never seen him scold anyone in the room for his ignorance or naivete. Like others who teach and write well in this field, he encourages people to stay in the room, listen to diverse viewpoints, and learn from their mistakes.

The fact is, though, in the down-and-dirty work of daily, deadline sports coverage, especially if you are on your own, working without a net, it’s better to be a longshoreman than a Boy Scout.

This requires some cultural literacy — low culture as well as high. It means at least the occasional descent into the destructive element. It means coming to understand what lots of different groups find offensive, to the point of understanding the nuanced arguments within those groups. It means listening to classical music on your way to work, and gangsta rap on the way home. (My apologies, in advance, to the gangstas.)

But it also means newsroom training, even with tight dollars. It means giving people back-up on deadline, even with smaller staffs, a safety net to protect the organization from both types of screw-ups, those who don’t care and even those who don’t know.

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  • http://twitter.com/johnbpeele John B. Peele

    Perhaps to you. To me, it matters. He is forgiven by me. If he attempted to justify using it again in the same context, after what happened, I would disagree with him. Until then, here is to learning from ones mistakes. No one starts out in a field knowing everything, in fact every one is born illiterate. While learning from mistakes, we become better with time, with the help of people who are willing to teach instead of condemn. Do you hold yourself to your preached standards? I have forgotten my keys on a few occasions. I know damn well I need them to leave, but the mind can get distracted every now and then. There are lots of reasonable explanations. I know I’d prefer the knowledge needed to never harm or offend another, but there is far too much knowledge in the world to reach this point. The best I can do is never stop trying, but I’ve offended people none the less. 

  • http://twitter.com/johnbpeele John B. Peele

    Mark Rodgers, here is to you knowing every single little thing about media and editing, you are my hero.

  • wc reber

    They don’t call it the “toy department” anymore?

  • Anonymous

    It’s usually people who think it’s okay to make tasteless pseudo-jokes based on race/religion/colour who throw around ‘politically correct’ as an insult. It’s not funny and never was.

  • Anonymous

    It’s usually people who think it’s okay to make tasteless pseudo-jokes based on race/religion/colour who throw around ‘politically correct’ as an insult. It’s not funny and never was.

  • Anonymous

    I am always skeptical of coincidences, so the fact that this particularly phrase — which while not rare is not used commonly — popped up three separate times in the media in stories about a Chinese American.
    Eldeberry: Yes, we know the meaning of the word chink in the context of the cliche. Are you really missing the point here?

  • http://www.fashion-bop.com/ China Wholesalers

    if we donot know… just make it clear.. not a big deal

  • mike smith

    Of course it’s a play on words.  Which is something that you’d laugh at, except in this over politically correct world that has been inflicted on us, where you’re expected to complain, and ask for the joker’s head.  

  • Anonymous

    Oh seriously, he would have used the term ‘chink in the armor’ if he wasn’t writing about an Asian? This was a deliberate play on words by someone who doesn’t have the guts to admit it.

  • http://twitter.com/TanyaSupernova Tatyana Safronova

    I don’t buy you apologizing for this headline. How can an adult living in America, and most of all working in a newsroom you describe as filled with banter that is “immature, sexist, homophobic, … politically incorrect ” not know what “chink” means? How could his editors not have known? You can’t feign ignorance here, comparing this headline to instances where you ignorantly misspoke in private, where you  “didn’t realize.” I’m a journalism teacher. I can’t and I won’t let my students say “I didn’t realize” when writing articles. There is a burden on us to know, to understand the catch phrases and sayings we use, to not shoot our mouths off, because when it’s published, you can’t take it back. Care and diligence is what our work is about. Not pretending we didn’t know any better. 

  • http://twitter.com/radasc Ralph Schwartz

     People who can’t step out of the dictionary and acknowledge that headlines, especially in sports, play on words all the time and can suggest two meanings at once are trying to hide from something. I got that off my chest. … My reason for posting is that people who work in newsrooms should know all the ins and outs of gutter speech. It’s an unwritten job requirement, or should be. And since most people only read the headline of a given story, it should never be written without a second set of eyes — hopefully those of someone who has been around the block a few more times than the copy editor who wrote it.

  • Anonymous

    Those racial slurs you mention are better known among the general population as offensive and demeaning (and don’t have a second definition like “chink” does).  Find me one American adult who doesn’t know that “nigger” and “wetback” are racist.  I’ve only heard the word “chink” used as a slur in historical sources.

    I see no evidence that slurs against Asian-Americans are more acceptable, as Anthony Federico’s firing indicates.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/L373DUJLJEKPCBVBGRCX4ROONE Lam

    Sez Drugs 
    http://vietkill.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/teverbach Tracy Everbach

    I wonder what those of you who are defending this word would say had the headline been about a black athlete and used “nigger,” or a Hispanic athlete and used “spic” or “wetback.” Or a Jewish athlete and used “kyke.” Why are slurs against Asians more acceptable than those against other ethnicities? Where do you draw the line on political correctness and outright insulting slurs?

  • http://www.newsloops.net/ Mark Rogers

    It doesn’t matter whether he knew the word is racist. It’s his job to know these things. If he doesn’t, then he’s better off in different career.

  • Anonymous

    Since “chink” is defined as a crack, cleft or fissure, a narrow opening, and anyone could tell by the context that this is what was meant, I see no problem–unless the journalist meant that there was a person of Asian descent in the armor. This is ridiculous, PC in hyperdrive.

  • http://twitter.com/PatrickDowns Patrick Downs

    So, Editors don’t make mistakes, or aren’t allowed to? Editors have other senior editors who supervise them. Are they infallible and not responsible?

  • http://twitter.com/PatrickDowns Patrick Downs

    It was not intended as a slur, I believe, and the common, accepted definition of “chink in the armor” for 100s of years has meant something very different and not offensive to any race. Accidents happen, and there should have been mercy rather than mercilessness shown. Suspension? Sure. Firing? Absurd.

  • http://twitter.com/PatrickDowns Patrick Downs

    I can see now that the offense was the hed in connection to story on Lin. That is a problem, the context, but I would say one would have to prove malice aforethought, rather than just faling to make the connection with the pejorative use of the work “chink” (which he may have never used or been aware of … yes, it’s possible). Firing him for it? Outrageous… no one is safe then. Zero tolerance for ANY mistake, by anyone, ever. Are the bosses held to that standard?

  • http://www.facebook.com/KenCarpenter Ken Carpenter

    I forgot to ask — What about Max Bretos, an ESPN TV anchor, who used the same phrase live on air, but received only a 30-day suspension? How does one person get fired and another not?

  • http://www.facebook.com/KenCarpenter Ken Carpenter

    My first exposure to the controversy was from a link on Twitter, in which the tweet said something like, “Can you believe ESPN used this headline about Jeremy Lin? [link].” I clicked, and my immediate reaction was, “There’s nothing wrong with this hed.” It took me a second, maybe a few seconds, to break down the perfectly acceptable four-word phrase into parts and then make the connection of one word to Lin. I know the word, I know its derogatory meaning. I just didn’t see the problem immediately. … When you use a common phrase — cliché, idiom, whatever — it is less a string of individual words than one long word, in this case a 15-letter crossword answer to the clue, “vulnerable point of attack, a weakness in a defense; a fatal flaw.” … The headline writer slapped a common phrase on a nondescript column at 2:30 a.m. and went home. (Where was his slot man? Oh yeah, they don’t exist in the Web world.) The error was caught and removed 35 minutes later. Apologies were made all around. There was no malice aforethought, no racist intent. Anthony Federico should not have been fired. Reprimanded, certainly. A two-week suspension, without pay, would seem an appropriate sentence. Even editors should be allowed to make a mistake. (Ken Carpenter, Professor of Journalism at Valencia College, and former headline writer at four daily newspapers.)

  • http://twitter.com/PatrickDowns Patrick Downs

    URBAN DICTIONARY: 

    Chink in the Armor1) An narrow opening and vunerable area in one’s armor that the opponent will usually aim for. This term relies on “chink” in the sense of “a crack or gap,” a meaning dating from about 1400 and used figuratively since the mid-1600s.

    2) A figurative term for a one’s weakness, largest flaw or their prevention of success.1) Because of the chink in the armor of Sir Lancelot, his opponent was able to break past his defense and inflict a dangerous flesh wound.2) We would have aced this presentation if Leo wasn’t in our group. He didn’t study at all, he’s the chink in the armor.

  • http://twitter.com/PatrickDowns Patrick Downs

    Outrageous, misguided and abusive political correctness. Same word, vastly different meanings, as anyone should know or should be easily able to learn. I knew the meaning of this phrase in high school 30 years ago. Ignorance of language and meaning (especially by journalist bosses) is no excuse for a firing. I hope he sues and wins.
    chink 1  (chngk)n.A narrow opening, such as a crack or fissure.tr.v. chinked, chink·ing, chinks1. To make narrow openings in.
    2. To fill narrow openings in.[Probably alteration of obsolete chine, from Middle English, crack, from Old English cine.]chinky adj.
    Chink in the Armor199 up, 105 down1) An narrow opening and vunerable area in one’s armor that the opponent will usually aim for. This term relies on “chink” in the sense of “a crack or gap,” a meaning dating from about 1400 and used figuratively since the mid-1600s.

    2) A figurative term for a one’s weakness, largest flaw or their prevention of success.1) Because of the chink in the armor of Sir Lancelot, his opponent was able to break past his defense and inflict a dangerous flesh wound.

    2) We would have aced this presentation if Leo wasn’t in our group. He didn’t study at all, he’s the chink in the armor.http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Chink%20in%20the%20Armor

  • http://www.facebook.com/davevandewalle Dave Van de Walle

    Have to disagree – someone who works at ESPN (ESPECIALLY someone who works at ESPN) needs to be aware of these things. The modern day Dictionary of Cultural Literacy has been replaced, in some circles, by the Urban Dictionary – which is the 20-something’s first stop for the sorts of things they would have learned in the real world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/davevandewalle Dave Van de Walle

    Have to disagree – someone who works at ESPN (ESPECIALLY someone who works at ESPN) needs to be aware of these things. The modern day Dictionary of Cultural Literacy has been replaced, in some circles, by the Urban Dictionary – which is the 20-something’s first stop for the sorts of things they would have learned in the real world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianhaas Brian Haas

    If this guy were an intern, I’d be more forgiving. But ESPN says he was an “editor.” Perhaps this raises as many questions about ESPN’s management — a 28-year-old editor? Really? — as it does that particular editor’s cultural awareness.

    But journalists are paid for having a wide-breadth of knowledge, particularly on issues that concern cultural sensitivity. Is it possible this guy truly did not know the term “chink” is highly offensive? Possibly. But as journalists, we’re held to a higher standard and, as with criminal law, ignorance is not an excuse.

    I find it mind-boggling that anyone of adult age doesn’t recognize that term as a vicious ethnic slur, particularly someone working in journalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/teverbach Tracy Everbach

    How is it that in a large organization like ESPN, that only one person would read the headline before it is published? Ignorance is not a defense for using slurs.

  • Anonymous

    Ah, Dr. RPC, there’s a further prescription for prevention: How about ensuring that newsrooms are filled with the most diverse group of journalists possible? Not for ‘political correctness’ nor window dressing. But because it can better the stories we put out for a diverse America. Shame that the economy has seen a slash and burn of the journalistic workforce, in general; even more shameful that so many newsroom leaders have sent to the dustbin their promise of diversifying their journalistic corps. Was glad to see so many Asian American journalists get a moment in the spotlight with Linsanity.But, again: Yes, you are right. We can’t each know everything; we can tap collective wisdom and might. That won’t happen, even with training or experience, if everyone in an area is same-same-same.