As the news of beloved former South African President Nelson Mandela's death reached the far corners of the web on December 5, 2013, online publications of all kinds rushed to update their headlines, publish obituaries, and share images, stories and tributes to a man who indeed left the world a better place.
Some did better than others. In Italy, where newsrooms are facing cuts and the quality of journalism is often criticized, several national newspapers published on their websites headlines calling Mandela “the father of apartheid”. Mandela was, in fact, instrumental in the dismantling of apartheid, South Africa's system of racial discrimination.
The headlines appeared on the country's main right-wing newspaper Il Giornale as well as newspapers il Mattino and Il Messaggero, generating a wave of criticism online.
Although the mistake was corrected shortly after its appearance, the headline was copied in a number of publications, such as news portal Il Post.
On Twitter, representatives of Il Giornale, including Andrea Cortellari, who wrote the headline, apologized profusely:
— Andrea Cortellari (@ACortellari) December 5, 2013
An unforgivable mistake. The intention, as you may imagine, was “the father of the fight against…” I can't apologize enough.
Many attacked him and the newspaper—which is often criticized for its biased support of ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Italy's left. Twitter user iceheartp, for example, replied to the apology:
.@ACortellari tranquillo, ci sono cose più umilianti nella vita. Tipo scrivere per Il Giornale.
— iceheartp (@IceHeartP) December 5, 2013
@ACortellari No worries, there are more humiliating things in life. Like writing for Il Giornale.
Others appreciated the apology, deeming it an unusual gesture amongst Italian journalists. Meanwhile, referencing the paper's editor Alessandro Sallusti, prominent journalist Gad Lerner asked:
“Il Giornale” di Sallusti prima definisce Mandela “padre dell'apartheid”, poi chiede scusa. Ma è perdonabile l'ignoranza dei benestanti?
— Gad Lerner (@gadlernertweet) December 6, 2013
Sallusti's Il Giornale calls Mandela “the father of apartheid”, then apologizes. But is the ignorance of the well-off forgivable?
The incident also generated a broader conversation about the difficulty of maintaining the quality in journalism amidst a lack of resources—budget cuts and shrinking editorial staff make it harder to maintain high standards while publishing in real-time, some argued.
Italian journalist Gianni Riotta pointed to the headline error as evidence of the poor state of affairs for the Italian press:
I giornali che celebrano Nelson Mandela come “il Padre dell'Apartheid” sono prova tragica di come le cose vadano male nel vecchio mestiere
— Gianni Riotta (@riotta) December 5, 2013
Newspapers celebrating Nelson Mandela as “the father of apartheid” are the tragic proof of how bad things are going for the profession