Sexist or not, evidence suggests putting Phelps before Ledecky gets more readers

Twitter is buzzing with allegations of sexism after a newspaper headline reported Michael Phelps tying for silver, relegating Katie Ledecky’s new world record in women’s 800 freestyle to the subhead.

Writers rarely write their own headlines, so poor Paul Newberry is taking doubly-undeserved abuse!

Some argued that this may not have been motivated by the editor’s sexism, but by the desire to get more readers for the following reasons:

  • It is common to put the more-famous person first because more people are following that person, rightly or wrongly.
  • People expect Phelps to win gold, so his tie for silver creates the “curiosity gap” headline writers strive for. People ask themselves “Why didn’t he win gold?” and read more to find out, rightly or wrongly.
  • World records for specific demographics tend to get less attention when they fall short of a preexisting record for all humans, rightly or wrongly.

So does the Phelps headline get more readers? I subjected this question to a very limited test with the following two Facebook ads, targeting all demographics in the United States:

The ads both linked to an article about the controversy on from

While this was a very limited test, the Phelps version came out ahead, receiving more clicks after being displayed to fewer people.

Much more robust data would need to be collected for a scientific result, but the preliminary finding is clear: A headline writer could have had very good, completely non-sexist reasons for writing this headline.

Does that mean the headline isn’t sexist? Maybe. Perhaps we should converse about whether it unintentionally reinforces institutional sexism or whether or not newspapers have a social obligation to highlight accomplishments of women, even if it costs them readership. Those are the conversations would be more productive than putting people on the defensive by assuming sexist motivations and calling each other jackasses.