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Culturally tone-deaf newsrooms shine in the 2016 Olympics

Thursday night’s San Jose Mercury News racist tweet has capped a week of sexist and cultural tone-deaf commentary from the Rio Olympics. #mediaFail

I was certain that the San Jose Mercury News tweet was a spoof.

I read it three times. Stunned.

Then I went to their Twitter page, where I read the apology. I breathed a sigh of thanks that Ed Zitron had the presence of mind to screen cap the tweet, which had (of course) disappeared.

Read that again.

Headline. Headline? This wasn’t just a poorly written tweet?


The BBC understood how to write a tweet that matched the photo:

Manuel won the gold medal Thursday night in the women’s 100-meter freestyle. She tied for first place with Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak. Both swimmers now hold the Olympic record of 52.70 seconds.

But there was an even bigger slap: NBC did not broadcast the medal ceremony.


Given the symbolic nature of this win — and the state of racial relations in the U.S. at the moment — the oversight is unconscionable.

In the past, lack of access to swimming pools and public beaches meant that many black Americans were denied the opportunity to learn how to swim. Intergenerational fear of the water stops their descendants from learning even now.

Here’s the deal: this isn’t a one-off example of tone-deaf media. Nor is it restricted to the west.

This Thursday fiasco follows Saturday’s tone-deaf commentary from NBC:


There was Sunday’s sexist tweet from the Chicago Tribune:

And her husband had nothing to do with her accomplishment, the bronze medal in women’s trap shooting. That was her second Olympic medal, but the article focused more on the Bears than her Olympic success.

The paper walked back the tweet:

Then there’s this from the Daily Mail (just look at the original headline, captured for all eternity in the URL):

To bring attention to the sexist pandering, we have Caissie St.Onge:


On Monday, NBC forced announcer Al Trautwig to delete his tweet saying that American gymnastics star Simone Biles’ adoptive mother and father were not her parents.

The tweet was in response to his on-air comments after NBC aired a profile about Biles. Trautwig said that she “was raised by her grandfather and his wife and she calls them mom and dad.”

Biles is adopted.


On Tuesday, the BBC stepped in it, too. Thrice.

First up:

The second instance was on BBC radio. An on-air personality tried to make a joke about Somalian pirates when reporting on their sailing win.

And the third instance Tuesday was a TV personality:

BBC apologized to viewers after tennis commentator Paul Hand urged “kiss cam” operators to refrain from showing a gay couple. “Let’s hope they don’t go on to two blokes sat next to each other,” Hand said.


On Wednesday, the government “distributed pamphlets titled ‘Olympics without racism‘ in stadiums. It sounds like far too little, far too late.

Here’s Canadian CBC commentator Byron MacDonald, referencing 14-year-old Chinese swimmer Ai Yanhan, later Wednesday night. Unknown to MacDonald, his mike was live.



How to explain the lack of cultural awareness?

What we are seeing (or hearing) at the 2016 Olympics reflects the way newsrooms report on women athletes. In other words, this is S.O.P.

Analyzing over 160 million words from decades of newspapers, academic papers, tweets and blogs, the study [from UK’s Cambridge University Press] finds men are three times more likely than women to be mentioned in a sporting context, while women are disproportionately described in relation to their marital status, age or appearance.


The research also shows the way women are differentiated by gender marking, both in terms of naming the sport itself (Wimbledon ladies‘ singles) and the athletes participating (woman golfer).

We’re also seeing a legacy of global racism.

The Olympics audience is larger and more vocal than that for most individual sporting events. That attention brings opportunity.

The only way to effect change is to make the need for it visible.

For that visibility assist, Twitter, we thank you.

As far as the fourth estate is concerned, it’s way past time for you to get with the program. (I’d lay odds those sexist tweets, like the other comments, originated from men.)


Featured image: Flickr CC

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

32 replies on “Culturally tone-deaf newsrooms shine in the 2016 Olympics”

Alicia – I need to hire you as headline writer. That is a great one! TY!

Just haven’t had enough face palms for all this as I’ve watched it unfold. I think the era of instant, always-on media has finally managed to pull the covers off this squalid festering mess with speed, etc., overcoming caution. And that it has done so, for all its other problems, is a good thing. Thanks, Kathy.

Thanks. I’d don’t think social media is the cause — one of these was a website headline. Some are radio commentary. I think what’s happened is that people who hear/see now have a way to call out the behavior. (Looking on the positive side!)

Kathy: Yeah. I’m not saying it’s social media, though. Bear with me through some admittedly tortuous logic.

I’m saying the pace at which newsrooms are working has put more of a premium on having people whose heads are in the right place because things have become more reactive. This isn’t another wail against that pace and a call for the “good old days,” though (besides, those of us who worked for the wire service just kind of chuckle).

But I’m suggesting that as a side effect what it’s done is expose the soft underbelly, so to speak, of newsrooms’ cultural prejudices, thinking, etc., because there is less and less time to hide them. (When you’re being reactive, it tends to all hang out, so to speak.) And I agree with you that’s amplified by the ability of the crowd to call us out.

Ultimately, I think that’s for the greater good if we seize the opportunity, but it’s going to be ugly for a while given how long and ingrained some of these attitudes are, partly the result of the demographic makeup of newsrooms and partly the result of misguided flailing to do something, anything, to attract readers (thus the Trib’s weak mea culpa that it tried to localize things too much).

This was from the AP story on the Merc News. In his own backhanded way, I think Chase makes the point, though the “we’re working harder with fewer people” meme is becoming trite as a reaction/excuse for things like this. Eventually, we’ll evolve to a new equilibrium where both people and the institutions/systems they work in can better handle these demands in what I hope is an authentic change, not just a new equilibrium where we learn to hide it again, but faster. :)

“Executive Editor Neil Chase said no one will be disciplined because it appears there were no bad intentions in writing the headline.

Instead, Chase said there will be a “tough conversation” to determine exactly how the headline came to be written and published without any staffer raising concern. He said a “couple different people saw it” before it was posted.

Chase said The Mercury News, like many media companies, is working with smaller staffs than in the past in an era of increased demand during a 24-hour news cycle.

‘That’s no excuse,’ he said. ‘We made a mistake.’ ”



The pace has been “picking up” since electricity was applied to communication (think the telegraph). But Twitter has been around for almost 10 years. :-)

What has happened, certainly, is the hollowing out of newsrooms — something I’ve written about as well (in the context of the economics of information) — and an unrealistic expectation on the part of management and owners (which may or may not include shareholders) to keep printing money (getting monopoly rents).

CraigsList and (et al) killed the classified goose that provided a huge part of the ad revenue. Debundling has punctured the remainder. And paywalls? They don’t work for most organizations because most content is NOT truly “unique” (ie, “monopoly”). And perfect replication of zeros and ones (not pixels, necessarily) means that anything that is “unique” and “gatewalled” will not stay there long. [My other story that I’m working on is the boneheaded Olympics committee prohibition on animated GIFs and Vines and such.)

I truly don’t know the answer. It certainly looks like it’s a minority who are willing to pay directly for news (versus ad supported content) — especially news that conflicts with worldview. :-(

That said, I’m willing to bet big bucks that the AP story did NOT have that headline. And the Beeb wrote a perfect caption/tweet for the photo that was accurate, complete and provided context. Yes, I know that the SJMN is not the BBC but dammit … how could ANYONE in journalism today think that was an appropriate headline?!? I mean — #blackLivesMatter should be a Clue-By-Four!

Thanks for chiming in. I appreciate it. :-)

I’m late to the what-are-they-thinking mess that is newsMedia, women and race at the Olympics.
SO I cataloged it. I wish I were teaching a social media class right now …

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