We can all learn from National Geographic’s acknowledgement of the past

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Throughout its history, National Geographic has participated in racially-biased media coverage of people of colour within the United States and around the world. On Monday, Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg formally acknowledged this on behalf of the publication for the first time.

By making an example of themselves, National Geographic has set themselves on a path to repair the damage they caused for racialized peoples and nations covered in the magazine. 

This isn’t exactly a new revelation; the magazine has been criticized for years because of its Eurocentric and exploitative coverage of different cultures. But this is the first time National Geographic acknowledged it themselves. 

Older publications still exist all around the world and this acknowledgement must be sobering for all of them. As more and more viewpoints are increasingly prioritized in the media, committing to diverse hiring and storytelling is a commitment to future credibility.

What Goldberg’s acknowledgement does is force a major media company to look inward to find  things that can and should be fixed. Other media outlets need to learn to examine problematic pasts with a critical eye and use them to move forward free of the same mistakes.  

We aren’t excused from this either. The Queen’s Journal itself has been continuously publishing since 1873, more than a decade earlier than National Geographic’s first issue. In our 145-year history, there’s no doubt our coverage, including this year’s story about a potential land recognition sign at University and Union, has been skewed to prioritize white voices. 

No publication can create an issue like racism, but they certainly can contribute to it in what they choose and don’t choose to cover. 

In an interview with the Associated Press, Goldberg asserted “we needed to own our story to move beyond it.”  This isn’t about clearing National Geographic’s name but acknowledging that the publication was problematic and that drawing attention to those issues is important. 

This acknowledgement brings awareness to the media’s role in telling stories and photography’s role in how they’re portrayed and sensationalized. The legacy of racism in art and photography isn’t spoken about very often. It’s essential to recognize visual storytelling’s impact on how we see the world. 

Providing people who have been wronged in the past a platform to tell their own stories and create their own images is essential work for publications old and new.  

Revisiting and contextualizing past stories is something that will force readers to think critically about what they see and read about the past. Going back through archives and drawing attention to the issues with past articles and images is something that needs to be prioritized. 

 

— Journal Editorial Board

 

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