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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Monday, February 20, 2012

If a headline can mean more than one thing, change it

A dumb headline that didn’t even make sense cost an ESPN headline writer his job this weekend.

At worst it was a racial slur. At best it was offensive, insensitive and politically incorrect.

According to published reports, the headline that caused the stir was on ESPN’s mobile website for barely more than half an hour, and not at a particularly high-traffic time — from 2:30 a.m. to 3:03 a.m. Saturday. Someone realized it was inappropriate, but not fast enough.

The headline would have accurately told the story about the end of the Knicks’ winning streak without raising an eyebrow — if the subject hadn’t been about an Asian American.

The headline was “Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-stopping Loss to Hornets.”

The phrase “Chink in the armor” has nothing to do with race, but rather refers to a weakness. But when you’re talking about the NBA’s only Asian American player, a sudden superstar, you’ve got to know better.

Forgive the stereotype, but sports headline writers in particular seem to fall prey to puns and cliches, while readers just want to know what the story is about. Puns are more often hits than misses. They are rarely funny or clever.

Should the ESPN headline writer have lost his job? That was probably overkill. It depends on whether the headline was written with malice or whether it was an insensitive, credibly dumb mistake. The outcome is a teachable moment — for all of us in the news business.

My advice to staff is don’t try to be cute in headlines and stories. Or tweets. And be sensitive to possible slurs, double meanings, or misunderstandings. If there’s more than one way to interpret a phrase in a story or headline, that’s too many. Change it.

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