National Geographic: "For decades, our coverage was racist"

National Geographic
Discussion with Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Geographic’s Editor in Chief, Susan Goldberg, revealed on Monday that for decades the magazine has covered the world through a racist lens, such as portraying native brown-skinned tribesmen and bare-breasted women as "savages” and virtually ignoring people of color in the U.S. who were not laborers or domestic workers until the 1970s.

I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888. I’m the first woman and the first Jewish person — a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here. It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past. But when we decided to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.
— Goldberg wrote in an editor's letter

How we got here: Goldberg tasked John Edwin Mason, a preeminent historian at the University of Virginia to look into the magazine's coverage of people of color in the U.S. and abroad.

What Mason found:

  • Until the 1970s, the publication virtually ignored people of color in the country who were not laborers or domestic workers.
  • The publication routinely portrayed “natives” in other countries as “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages_every type of cliché.”
  • In a 1916 article about Australia, the caption under the accompanying photographs of two Aboriginal people reads: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
  • A story in 1962 about the killing of 69 black South Africans by police in Sharpeville had "no voices of black South Africans," Mason said. "That absence is as important as what is in there. The only black people are doing exotic dances… servants or workers. It’s bizarre, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see.”

The backdrop: NatGeo's "Race Issue" comes as other media outlets are reckoning with its past coverage. The New York Times admitted last week that most of the thousands of obituaries it published since 1851 chronicled the lives of white men. The paper has since published obituaries of notable women in its “Overlooked” section.