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'National Geographic' Magazine Chief Admits History of Racist Coverage

The April issue of National Magazine is devoted to exploring race.
The April issue of National Magazine is devoted to exploring race.
'National Geographic' Magazine Chief Admits History of Racist Coverage
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National Geographic magazine admitted this week that racism had influenced its reporting on the world for generations.

The head of National Geographic was critical of its images of bare-breasted women. She rejected descriptions of brown-skinned tribesmen as savage and unintelligent.

"We had to own our story to move beyond it," editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg told the Associated Press. She was speaking about the magazine's April edition, which explores the issue of race.

The National Geographic Society, a not-for-profit organization, first published its magazine in 1888.

John Edwin Mason, a photography historian, investigated National Geographic’s reporting and choice of photos over the years. He teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia.

Mason reported his findings to the magazine in late 2017. His study found that until the 1970s, National Geographic largely ignored people of color in the United States unless they were laborers or domestic servants. It often supported the idea that people of color from foreign lands were "exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages…every type of cliché," Mason added.

For example, in a 1916 story about Australia, a sentence next to a photo of two Aboriginal people read: "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings."

This examination comes as other media organizations are also considering their past reporting work. The New York Times recently admitted that most of its obituaries described the lives of white men. The newspaper began publishing stories on famous women in an area called "Overlooked." It launched the project on March 8, International Women’s Day.

The April edition of National Geographic included a letter from Goldberg. She identified herself as the magazine's first female and first Jewish editor.

Goldberg said in the letter that when the editors decided to examine the subject of race, “we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

She told the AP, "I knew when we looked back there would be some storytelling that we obviously would never do today, that we don't do and we're not proud of. But it seemed to me if we want to credibly talk about race, we better look and see how we talked about race."

Mason said his investigation found repeated examples of racist imagery in the magazine's representation of people of color. For example, they often wore little clothing, he said. People of color were also not usually seen in cities or with “technologies such as cars, airplanes, trains or factories,” Mason added.

“People of color were often pictured as living... as ancestors might have lived several hundreds of years ago and that's in contrast to Westerners who are always fully clothed and often carrying technology."

Boys and men, Mason said, "could count on every issue or two of National Geographic having some brown skin bare breasts for them to look at." He said he believes that the editors knew that was “one of the appeals of their magazine.”

Women, especially those from Pacific islands, were photographed in “ways that were almost glamour shots,” Mason said.

Samir Husni heads the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi's journalism school. He said many Americans first learned about the rest of the world by reading National Geographic.

Husni said it is important that kind of coverage never happens again. He added that offering jobs in the magazine field to people from all backgrounds is a way to apologize for the past.

Goldberg said she is doing just that. She noted that National Geographic has done a better job of employing women than members of racial and ethnic minority groups.

"We need photographers who are African-American and Native American because they are going to capture a different truth and maybe a more accurate story," Goldberg said.

National Geographic now reaches 30 million people around the world. It was one of the first magazines to publish color photos. The monthly magazine is well known for its coverage of history, science, environmentalism and culture. It can currently be found in 172 countries and in 43 languages.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. George Grow adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

bare-breasted – adj. without clothing covering one’s breast; topless

savageadj. not under human control; wild or violent

beyondadv. on the further side; until a later time

editionn. the form or version of a publication

exoticadj. very strange, unusual or different

cliché – n. something that has become commonplace

obituary – n. an article in a newspaper about the life of someone who has died recently

gazen. a fixed look

credibly adv. in a way that is reasonable to trust or believe​

obviously adv. in a way that is easy to see, understand, or recognize​

contrastn. something that is different from something else; a difference between two people or things

glamour n. a very exciting quality

accurateadj. free from mistake; able to produce results