Philadelphia Inquirer apologizes for offensive headline that left its staff in tears

The Philadelphia newspaper's editorial initially called 'Buildings Matter, Too' by a white columnist drew the ire of its staff and beyond

(Photo: The Philadelphia Inquirer)

A Philadelphia newspaper has apologized for one of its headlines, which offended not only people on social media but also its staff.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial on June 1, initially called “Buildings Matter, Too” by a 62-year-old white columnist, Inga Saffron. The opinion piece was diverting the popularity of Black Lives Matter during the ongoing George Floyd protests happening worldwide.

The op-ed got renamed into “Black Lives Matter. Do buildings?” before it got finally revised into a lengthy title followed by an apology from the company – “Damaging buildings disproportionately hurts the people protesters are trying to uplift.”

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“A headline published in Tuesday’s Inquirer was offensive, inappropriate and we should not have printed it. We deeply regret that we did. We also know that an apology on its own is not sufficient. We need to do better, “The Inquirer wrote. 

The first headline’s damage, albeit the content of the message is adequate and meaningful, caused more pain than unity. Instead of discussing how protesters should preserve the city’s historic landmarks and local businesses, The Inquirer has to explain why the company’s editorial team is tone-deaf among black readers.

“This kind of stuff is a distraction from what’s really going on in the world, and why go towards a very low point to make another point?,” Ernest Owens, writer-at-large for Philadelphia Magazine, the Vice President of Print at Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) said.

“Even vaguely suggesting a parallel between the loss of buildings and the loss of lives is inappropriate and insulting,” the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) President Dorothy Tucker said in an email.

Owens, who is also campaigning to become an NABJ Treasurer, has called for a boycott, insisting The Inquirer should consult with the PABJ on making better editorial choices, according to the PABJ website.

 “I just wish the editorial staff can be focused on covering these timely issues rather than having to address this unnecessary drama,” Owens said. “They have an ongoing issue with a lack of diversity. They have had issues with diversity and inclusion issues, and covering the Mummers Parade  – a racist parade in Philly.”

Owens also alleged that staffers were concerned about the headline before it was published, and some of them were in emotional tears behind the scenes at the newsroom’s Zoom meeting.

Denise Clay, who worked for the Inquirer’s Cheltenham and Bucks County bureaus and has experience in headline editing, told theGrio that a good headline should factor into whether it is going to affect the general message the article conveys.

“When you put out a headline like that, that shows that you haven’t hone on what you’re trying to say, and whether it is going to be said correctly,” Clay said.

Clay also pointed out that since leaving the Inquirer, the newsroom has not been as diverse as it used to be, creating an issue where the paper does not understand Black journalists.

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“When you’re in a situation where a lot of people don’t understand your experience and [the company] show you that [it] does not understand our experience, and if you talk with black journalists, we are all kinda fed up,” Clay said. 

The Philly-based newspaper is not the only flagship outlet to clash with its black journalists this week. The New York Times editorial team approved a piece from Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) supporting militarized policing in the wake of protests denouncing police brutality among black people.

Some of the Times writers of color, e.g. Sandra Garcia, have expressed the op-ed could result in its Black journalists getting hurt.

Full Disclosure: The author has an association with Ernest Owens, Dorothy Tucke, Denise Clay, and Sandra Garcia.