When American swimmer Simone Manuel tied for gold in the 100m freestyle Wednesday evening, it marked a truly historic occasion. Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in swimming.
Outlets everywhere covered it as such:
— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 12, 2016
— CNN (@CNN) August 12, 2016
— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) August 12, 2016
The San Jose Mercury News covered it too, but not nearly as successfully. See if you can spot the difference.
Here was their original tweet:
"Michael Phelps wins gold and so does some black chick." Way to go, Merc! pic.twitter.com/pqWMCnDvGb
— Sean Keane (@seankeane) August 12, 2016
The decision to merge the story of Michael Phelps winning his 22nd gold medal into Manuel’s story is odd in itself, as it would seem to place the accomplishments on the same level, or that Manuel’s story wasn’t worthy of its own piece. But newspapers sometimes have to make allowances for column inches and space. It’s not ideal, but there was probably a way to make it work.
This was not one of those ways, though. Running a headline that identifies Phelps by name while reducing Manuel to just her race is almost laughably wrong, on multiple levels. Least of all, it makes it sound as though The Mercury News doesn’t know who they’re talking about. Beyond that, of course, we have a white male athlete actually being named in the headline, while the black female athlete is just referred to as African-American.
Would a headline ever read “Simone Manuel shares historic night with white American”? Of course not.
The Mercury News tweeted an apology:
We apologize for an insensitive headline earlier on a story about Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps' medal wins. https://t.co/ykWvcddaKf
— Mercury News (@mercnews) August 12, 2016
And the story is now prefaced with this note:
Editor’s note:The original headline on this story was insensitive and has been updated to acknowledge the historic gold medal wins by both Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps. We apologize for the original headline. The story has also been updated.
Here’s a good rule for headlines related to the Olympics: use the athlete’s name! It’s not that difficult in theory, but in practice it’s been an issue already in Rio.