Just how sexist was the AP tweet calling Amal Clooney “wife of actor?”

September 1, 2015, 11:50 AM UTC
"China: Through The Looking Glass" Costume Institute Benefit Gala
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 04: Actor George Clooney and lawyer Amal Clooney attend the 'China: Through The Looking Glass' Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Photograph by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin — FilmMagic/Getty Images

The Associated Press got a lot of attention for its recent tweet about Amal Clooney—although probably not the type of attention it was after.

In an effort to promote its story on three Al-Jazeera journalists being tried for allegedly aiding a terrorist organization, the AP wrote that Clooney is representing one of the men. The problem? Rather than identifying her as a distinguished human rights lawyer, the tweet ID’ed her as “actor’s wife.”

Of course, as noted by the numerous sites that picked up the tweet—and the backlash that it sparked on social media—Clooney is a hell of a lot more than someone’s wife, even if that someone is uber-famous actor George Clooney. Let’s review a few career highlights: She clerked for now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, represented major world figures like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and has taught at top academic institutions like Columbia Law School.

The AP seemed to get the message. Less than two hours after its first tweet, the news organization repromoted the story with nary a mention of George:

Let me start by saying that I applaud the Twittersphere for calling out the AP. However, I don’t think the problem here is simply sexism. While I’ll never be able to go inside the head of the AP employee who wrote that tweet, as a digital media writer and editor, I can speak to the mindset of the online newsroom. Today, most journalism organizations are laser focused on getting clicks. And when it comes to attracting the most attention on Twitter (TWTR), there’s no contest between name-checking an actor vs. a lawyer—the celebrity will win every time. That’s also a likely explanation for why George Clooney isn’t mentioned in the AP story itself. For better or for worse, editors often use language in story-related tweets and Facebook (FB) posts that they would never include in the article itself.

That begs the question: What happens when powerful professional men are married to the female equivalent of George Clooney? In my admittedly non-scientific study of the issue (read: some time spent Googling), the results were damning.

Yes, you can find articles where tweets or headlines leaned on the men’s big-name wives or girlfriends. In one of the more egregious examples, ABCNews.com ran a story about real estate mogul Jeffery Soffer titled: “Elle Macpherson’s Billionaire Husband Jeffrey Soffer Sued in Deadly Helicopter Crash.”

Such references are relatively rare, however. Much more often, the famous female name is there, but tucked a paragraph or two into the story. Take this Hollywood Reporter piece about Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault, which slots its mention of his wife, actress Salma Hayek, to a parenthesis. (The publication’s tweet about the story doesn’t mention Hayek at all.) Then there’s this Wall Street Journal story featuring Rande Gerber, co-founder of hotel bar operator Gerber Group. Gerber’s model wife, Cindy Crawford appears in the second paragraph and, again, no Crawford in the tweet. Another story from the WSJ, this one about Olivier Sarkozy, global head of Carlyle’s financial services team, doesn’t mention of his famous girlfriend, Mary-Kate Olsen, at all.

I don’t expect that most media organizations will miss out on a chance to drop a famous name—even in the middle of the most serious of news stories. But as long as we’re going to worship at the alter of star-driven clicks, here’s hoping that AP‘s mis-tweet will remind us to, at the very least, disrespect the professional lives of celeb’s significant others equally, regardless of gender.

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