Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Today I was scanning through recent news stories, and there was a particular headline that caught my eye at industry website ITJourno: “Lack of TPP transparency could be Wong?”.
The headline is a pun on name of Senator Penny Wong, whose surname sounds like the word “wrong”. The pun is reminiscent of the old phrase “Two Wongs don’t make a White”, coined by former Prime Minister Arthur Calwell in the 1940s, who was skewered for it because it suggests there’s something inferior about Chinese people.
I tweeted ITJourno’s boss, Philip Sim, the following: “Nice to see watercooler racism is alive and well at @ITJourno. Disgusting and appalling”.
He replied within minutes, saying “Epitome (the publisher) puns names like that regularly and there was certainly no intent there. Apologies if it offended”.
I fired back with “Intent is quite irrelevant. Ignorance is not an excuse for racism. Take a diversity awareness course and lift your game”.
I don’t particularly relish being so harsh or blunt, but I didn’t want my message diluted – such is the limitation of trying to communicate something complex within 140 characters.
Within an hour, I received a message from Phil via LinkedIn with the subject “I’m sorry”, and it read as follows:
I’m very sorry that subheading caused offence and it was meant to be nothing more (than) a typical pun on someone’s name, which is something we tend to do at every opportunity, and so as I didn’t read that as being any different to any other pun we might have employed in the past. I understand now why that particular pun would be cause for offence and it was of course was changed immediately. We have discussed the matter internally and we’ve put in place understanding and a process so that it wouldn’t happen again. Again, I can only apologise for my ignorance over the matter.
And, true to his word, the headline was changed – “Wong” was changed to “wrong”.
I’m quoting this email because I believe it should be held up as a blueprint for any media professional’s response to cases of racism.
I’ve worked in the media, so I understand completely that headlines revolve around puns (it wouldn’t be my policy to pun people’s names, but that’s my personal policy) and, much as we don’t like to admit it, sometimes we genuinely are ignorant about whether something we’ve written is offensive.
The problem is that pleading ignorance offers no resolution to someone aggrieved because it comes across as an excuse to do it again.
What people like me want is to know that it won’t happen again so that everyone can move on, and that’s the resolution I got from this message. In an imperfect world, this is as good as it gets.
So what have I learned about calling out racism in the media?
- Don’t hold back. Call a spade a spade. Tell them it’s unacceptable. In the past, I’ve tried a softer approach where I qualify first that I understand it’s not always obvious that something is offensive and point out the problem as a form of constructive criticism, but this never achieves a good outcome. The offender often interprets a soft approach as meaning the complaint isn’t a strong one. As a result, rather than accept that there’s something to rectify, they’ll come up with any number of excuses to talk their way out of it. It’s not uncommon for them to say ‘it’s not that bad’ or ‘the Japanese did the same to me, so why can’t I do it to them?’ (as said to me by a prominent ABC journalist) or ‘I wasn’t laughing at the racial epithet, I was laughing that someone actually said it’ (as said to me by an editor at CNET Australia).
- Manage upwards. Tell them how to solve the problem. In this case, I told the offender to take diversity awareness training. It doesn’t actually matter that he took a different course of action – the point is they need to know that it’s not enough to say ‘I didn’t know it was offensive’. What we need to hear from them are the steps they’ll take to ensure it doesn’t happen again. If they don’t, it’s an excuse for them to let it happen again.