Apologies Just Don’t Cut It Anymore

August 24, 2017  |  

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Mistakes in the media and among public figures are far from an unusual occurrence. And no, we’re not talking about mistakes in the “fake news” nonsense sense. We’re talking about unfortunate decisions that are made with the hope of being clever or increasing personal visibility and relevance, but fall terribly short. Case in point: ESPN’s fantasy football coverage last week.

In short, ESPN decided to jazz up its fantasy sports coverage by “auctioning” off players. To a mostly white audience, ESPN hosts held up sticks with players’ faces on them and auctioned them off to the highest bidders. To say that the segment was uncomfortable would be quite the understatement. However, it is fairly easy to see how this all went terribly awry. If we had to guess, the thinking behind this incredibly stupid and offensive segment probably stemmed from a need to make ESPN’s fantasy sports coverage more interactive and engaging to their audience. Someone, and we’re guessing it was likely a white, middle-aged male, thought it could be cute to simulate an auction, complete with a fast-talking auctioneer pounding away with his gavel. This seemingly harmless concept was played out and orchestrated by an entire production team and, ultimately, made it to air without anyone raising enough of a concern about the implications and racist undertones to stop it. As outrage grew after the segment’s airing, ESPN issued an apology, saying:

“Auction drafts are a common part of fantasy football, and ESPN’s segments replicated an auction draft with a diverse slate of top professional football players. Without that context, we understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.”

We will admit that we were happy to see ESPN own up to its shortcomings and acknowledge that its attempt to be cute and clever was genuinely offensive. Holding up African-American football players to be auctioned off, harkening to images of slave auctions and the continued commoditization of African-American men is wrong, uncomfortable and simply not where we need to be as a society. Particularly, in these turbulent times when demonstrations of racism and white supremacy are dominating our news headlines, the last thing we need is for media outlets to pile on even more ignorance. So while, yes, thank you for your apology ESPN, we are very quickly getting to a point where these apologies simply aren’t cutting it anymore.

Need another example, we can thank Louise Linton for this week’s display of ignorance. Granted, she’s not a media personality and her stupidity was shared on her personal channel, but if we’re going to talk about this we might as well talk about it all. As the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, she is a public figure and should, at a very base level, be aware that boasting about her expansive wealth — while exiting a government plane — and then snappily and condescendingly defending her misguided post is a bad, bad, bad idea. And of course, like all bad ideas of late, it was followed with a very pre-packaged, unconvincing apology:

“I apologize for my post on social media yesterday as well as my response. It was inappropriate and highly insensitive.”

That’s not to say that owning up to a mistake isn’t appreciated. It is. Particularly for a larger media company, owning up to a mistake and ensuring that those failings aren’t repeated isn’t an easy task. That’s a whole lot of crow to eat. But the larger issue is that these sorts of screw-ups shouldn’t be happening in the first place. At some point cultural awareness and historical sensitivities need to become a key factor in the decision-making process among media professionals and social media personalities who millions of people look to in order to stay informed. And quite frankly, there are two very easy ways to prevent offensive content: Populate your newsrooms with a cross-section of what our world really looks like today and, when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Now, granted, both of those things are easier said than done. The lack of diversity in some newsrooms isn’t an issue that can be solved overnight. While there is no doubt that over the last several decades, the amount of women and people of color in these spaces has increased, mistakes like those demonstrated by ESPN last week prove that we still have miles to go before our newsrooms are truly reflective of the society they cover. Having not only a diversity of ethnic and gender backgrounds, but also a diversity of experience and socio-economic upbringing can foster an environment that is, in a word, more “woke.” There will be a greater understanding of the Black, brown and minority experience, allowing for fewer misguided decisions to make it to air. We’re not saying it would be a perfect system, but it would certainly be better than what we have going now. It’s also not to say that white people are incapable of being sensitive to the experiences of different people, but it is a real challenge to fully understand and appreciate the experiences of an entire culture that wasn’t the one that surrounded you in your most formative years. The same would be true for a straight person to fully understand the LGBTQ experience, and so on. Aside from working to create more opportunities for underrepresented groups within media and newsrooms across the country, it is also equally important to simply be cautious.

Look, it’s easy for people who don’t work in the breaking news business to question why or how poor decisions make it to final print or air. In a time when speed has surpassed accuracy, the margin for careless mistakes, grammatical errors and typos has increased dramatically. But along with those relatively minor stumbles has also come a penchant for hit publish, think later journalism. Sometimes the quest to be the best, buzziest and first can come with sacrificing quality and care. So while in a time when it feels like traditional journalism is dying, giving way to a more guerrilla style and sometimes amateur approach to delivering news, we implore the best and brightest in media to stay the course. Sure it’s easy to cobble together click bait or think of clever, albeit, misguided headlines, it’s important that the quest for ratings and readership does not cloud good judgment. Yes, ESPN, we know you wanted to have a little fun to liven things up on your broadcast, but come on now. At the end of the day a carefully crafted apology is only going to go so far in addressing what is a much larger issue. And, more dishearteningly, these pre-packaged apologies feel so empty that you have to wonder if anyone actually learned anything to be more aware or if we’re now just biding our time before the next high-profile screw up.

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