'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in the day this involved the posting or passing around of photos or headlines that could entertain the troops, but were not be published.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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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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