National Geographic confronted its past racism. Is it true that it improved?
Inside an American media institution’s reckoning.
National Geographic was a pioneer.
While many media outlets addressed bias in their reporting and newsroom culture following the police killing of George Floyd last summer, the magazine announced its own racial reckoning in 2018. That year, it devoted its April issue to the subject of race, and Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s first female editor-in-chief, publicly acknowledged the magazine’s long history of racism in its coverage of people of color in the United States and abroad.
“Until the 1970s, National Geographic largely ignored people of color in the United States, rarely mentioning them except as laborers or domestic workers,” Goldberg wrote in an editor’s letter introducing the issue. “Meanwhile, it portrayed ‘natives’ in other parts of the world as exotics, famously and frequently naked, happy hunters, noble savages—every cliché imaginable.”
Goldberg vowed that the magazine would confront its past and improve, and the Race Issue was intended to be the start of a larger reexamination. While the issue drew some criticism, particularly for a cover story that critics felt made simplistic assumptions about the concept of a post-racial future, it was a significant statement by a publication that had previously appeared to believe itself above reproach. The media industry was anticipating what would happen next.
However, change has been slow and challenging over the last three years, and many current and former staff members believe it is insufficient. The magazine is still attempting to live up to its promise of a new approach to global reporting.
It’s a high-profile illustration of the difficult path to meaningful and lasting change, as well as what happens when public pronouncements are not accompanied by meaningful action. That is a risk that many businesses, not just media outlets, face in the months and years following last summer’s public reckoning with racism and anti-Blackness — will they follow through on their Instagram posts and supportive statements with tangible work once the spotlight has shifted?
Vox spoke with nearly twenty current and former National Geographic employees, ranging from administrative assistants to editorial leadership, who described instances in which employees attempted to raise concerns about racial insensitivity in coverage, only to have their concerns dismissed or ignored, despite the magazine’s public commitment to do better. Numerous staff members of color also speak of a culture that devalued and demeaned them.
According to staffers, it has largely been up to junior staffers, many of whom are people of color, to press the magazine to keep the promises made in the Race Issue. They’ve made a difference, including compiling a resource list aimed at increasing diversity and representation in the story assignment process. Nonetheless, as one staffer put it, “it’s a lot of teaching all the time.” “Are they paying attention?”
All Vox staffers spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation by a publication with social and economic clout in the media industry.
National Geographic did not respond directly to requests for comment on this story. According to a magazine spokesperson, “National Geographic is unequivocally committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion and has undertaken a broad range of activities to put that commitment into practice,” citing June 2020 initiatives such as a new diversity and inclusion council, mandatory unconscious bias training for employees, and a scholarship program for women.