In a remarkable move for a mainstream outlet, National Geographic is reexamining its past racist coverage.
When the magazine began in 1888, it regularly referred to indigenous tribes as “savages” and would write that the people were “inferior” in terms of intellect. When gorgeous photography of landscapes and artifacts boomed in its pages, indigenous people were photographed in exploitative ways.
Those are the stories and articles that prompted Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of the magazine, to challenge history. In a post discussing the April issue focusing on race, Goldberg revealed this retrospective look at her publication’s coverage of communities of color.
The article contains several examples of where their editorial coverage erred, but Goldberg insists the reflection is a must.
If journalism is the first draft of history, then it makes sense to go back to finish and fix what was started. John Edwin Mason, a professor who specializes in photography and the history of Africa, helped Goldberg reevaluate the magazine’s long and troubled history of racist writing.
That discrimination extended to what the magazine didn’t cover, leaving out unsavory history to give gleaming impressions of countries like South Africa. In one story from the 1960s, there were no black South Africans interviewed in the article.
The racism by omission affected domestic coverage as well.
One of the proposed ideas is to continue to put cameras into hands of the people who live in the countries National Geographic is covering. The magazine did this in 2015 when they gave cameras to Haitians to document their country.
These are the images that can replace the antiquated ones taken from National Geographic’s colonialist lens. They can tell the stories the magazine missed for decades.