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March 23, 2021

New Jersey reporter fired for photo caption calling woman a 'f***ing hot nurse'

Asbury Park Press editor apologizes for 'unacceptable' description that also included a Jewish slur

A reporter for the Asbury Park Press has been fired amid outrage over a photo caption in which he referred to a woman as a "f***ing hot nurse" and a "JAP," a derogatory ethnic term short for "Jewish American Princess."

The New Jersey newspaper, owned by mass media publisher Gannett, ran the caption Saturday in an online photo gallery that accompanied a story about a COVID-19 vaccination site in Lakewood, an Ocean County community with a large Jewish population.

Multimedia reporter Gustavo Martínez Contreras wrote the caption to describe a photo of an Orthodox Jewish woman preparing a COVID-19 vaccine. It was the final caption included in a 22-image gallery. 

"A f***ing hot nurse, a total JAP, loads a syringe with a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a (sic) in the Center for Health Education, Medicine and Dentistry vaccination tent in Lakewood, New Jersey, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021," the caption read. 

The gallery was removed from the newspaper's website Sunday, but an image of the caption was preserved by the New Jersey Globe

State leaders, stunned by the caption, sharply criticized the Asbury Park Press for allowing such an offensive description to pass through its editing process.

"It is unfathomable that someone could have written that, even privately, never mind that it was published," Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday at a press briefing in Trenton. "I would think, with all due respect, someone has to pay a price for that. That’s completely, incredibly offensive."

Martínez Contreras has since been terminated, the Asbury Park Press confirmed.

"This is beyond the pale and disgusting," tweeted State Sen. Vin Gopal, a Democrat from Long Branch. "Asbury Park Press needs to provide an explanation and apology ASAP on why and how this was posted."

Paul D'Ambrosio, executive editor for the Asbury Park Press, has offered a series of apologies and explanations in the days since the caption was published.

Leading up to the incident, staff generally had been entrusted with uploading photos directly to the website, D'Ambrosio said. The story in question was published late in the evening when staff was limited.

"The late hour and the self-publication led the story to blend in with the dozens of other stories on the site without the proper safety checks," D'Ambrosio said in his first statement, according to NJ 101.5. "Going forward, no photo and caption will be published without another staffer looking it over regardless of the time of the day."

In a second statement, D'Ambrosio directly apologized to the communities impacted by the caption, including Asian-Americans who may have interpreted "JAP" as a slur targeting them.

As executive editor of the Asbury Park Press, I apologize deeply to women, the Lakewood Jewish community (where the photo was taken), all members of the Jewish faith, the Asian American community and all our readers.

The words in the caption were totally unacceptable and in no way reflect the principles and practices of the staff of the Press and Gannett. The Press and Gannett have a long history of fighting for inclusiveness, diversity and women’s rights. We took immediate and significant action once we became aware of the issue, and we changed our online procedures to ensure such an event never happens again.

On Tuesday, D'Ambrosio published a story detailing the breakdowns that led to the publication of the caption.

"I thought someone had hacked our content management system," D'Ambrosio admitted. "In reality, it was a reporter who admitted that he did a 'stupid, stupid thing.'"

D'Ambrosio declined to comment further on the incident when contacted by PhillyVoice. Gannett, which has owned the Asbury Park Press since 1997, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Martínez Contreras issued an apology that was included in D'Ambrosio's story. 

"I’ve prided myself as a man who has been an advocate and supporter of women's rights and cultural sensitivity, but this caption shows that I have plenty of work to do to address my own issues to make sure that my words and actions always treat others with respect," Martínez Contreras said.

Martínez Contreras has worked as a multimedia reporter in cities around the U.S. and Latin America. He drew the support of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year after he was arrested during a justice protest for George Floyd in Asbury Park. Charges against him were dropped, but he later filed a civil lawsuit challenging the infringement of his constitutional right to cover the protest as a member of the press. 

Martínez Contreras did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

Anti-Semitic conspiracies have been on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting concerns that misinformation and hateful sentiments could lead to an increase in violence and intolerant acts toward Jewish people.

The Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey acknowledged the commitments made by the Asbury Park Press to safeguard its publication processes, but urged the newspaper to conduct a full investigation.

Local elected officials and school board members in Lakewood told NJ 101.5 they are considering pulling government advertising from the newspaper as a result of the incident. 

"I know the Press failed you this weekend," D'Ambrosio wrote in his story. "But please understand how seriously we take our responsibility to this community, now and in the days and years to come."