In consideration of the newspaper apology

How to accept blame for the sins of others while carving a path forward for your community

May 8, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

Editor’s note: A story published today on poynter.org that examines the role that Southern newspapers played in America’s post-Civil War racial violence. Some newsrooms have apologized for the actions of their forebearers for everything from shoddy reporting on the Civil Rights movement to superficial coverage of segregation and Jim Crow laws to veritable calls for lynching. Is your media group one that owes its community an apology? If so, this is your guide.  

It’s a trend for Southern newspapers to offer a heartfelt apology for their roles in perpetuating and at times advocating for the Jim Crow way of life.

Like educational institutions that facilitated the rape and abuse of the students in their charge, or medical schools where unethical human experiments were conducted, this dark past of Southern newspapers is a stain so deep, it’s hard to imagine that any apology could begin to repair the damage.

But you cannot build a healthy relationship with your community without owning up to your institution’s past failings. This is especially true when those past failings are as grievous and antithetical to journalistic values as the actions of many Southern newspapers, which included publishing false criminal accusations that led to the lynchings of innocent men, and publishing editorials that inflamed fear and fueled mobs that in turn attacked black citizens and burned their homes and businesses.

Hundreds of innocent people died. The future and fortunes of entire families were decimated. Throughout the South, communities can point to modern-day realities that still bear the shadows of that past, including economic, educational and health disparities.

Just as the legacy of print is both a privilege and an anchor for newspapers, this racial history is a weight that an institution can never fully discard. Instead, it must be carried into the future, for better or for worse.

But it’s time that newspapers everywhere owned up to the past. It starts with a public apology. Before you do that, be sure you’ve prepared your organization to do it right.

Here’s a guide to making a sincere and meaningful apology for the sins of the editors who went before you.  

1. Do the research. It’s a given that most staff today have no idea what happened in the past. Even the current stewards of family-owned properties are often blissfully unaware of the historical role local news organizations played in perpetuating injustice. But ignorance is no excuse. Go to the library and look at the microfilm. Talk to historians at colleges and universities. Dig through old records.

2. Name your mistakes and own them. Too many of these apologies mention their sins of omission, like their failure to expose corrupt law enforcement, or local businessmen who were leading the Klan. The (Raleigh) News & Observer did it right in 2006. Working with the Charlotte Observer, the paper printed a special section that gave a full accounting of the 1898 mob attack on the majority black community of Wilmington, North Carolina.  The section includes detailed accounts of a social and political campaign that preceded the violence, led in part by the founding publisher of the News & Observer, to strip black citizens of their voting rights. That campaign and the resulting savagery in North Carolina because the blueprint for the rest of the South to embrace Jim Crow.

It was a bold move for the modern-day keepers of the newspaper that contributed to the events that gave rise to Jim Crow to tell the story.  Most newsrooms don’t have that much to beg forgiveness for. But there’s still a lot. You have to include the myriad of sins of commission as well. Newspapers denied the black residents of their communities an array of services. Black citizens did not merit birth announcements or obituaries. Wedding announcements were also off limits. And even after newspapers opened the door (often by starting to charge for such things), couples from different races were denied a spot on the wedding pages, or their photos were omitted.

And then there is the problem of language. As the first draft of history, newspapers insisted on reinforcing the use of words that infantilized and demonized Black citizens— the word “boy” and “negro” were used without question.

3. Do something different going forward. Reparations is a controversial topic. Yet a sincere apology includes a promise to fix the problem. That doesn’t just mean you’re not going to be a part of the problem. Instead you have identify concrete actions that you can take today to demonstrate your sincerity. When Georgetown University discovered its modern-day fortunes were built off the proceeds of a slave auction, the university vowed to make it right with descendants of those slaves by offering them free tuition to Georgetown or other colleges.

Here’s a range of possibilities for today’s newsrooms to demonstrate regret.

  • Give deep advertising discounts to black-owned businesses to compensate for the damage done in riots that were spurred on by news coverage.
  • Create a high school or college scholarship fund for local black students to atone for perpetuating a government-funded school system of separate and unequal.
  • Assign staff resources to document the richness of modern black culture in the community to make up for the years of denigration.
  • Investigate government systems, including criminal justice, the schools and the police, exposing systemic injustice, as a recompense for the decades of propping up and perpetuating these systems.
  • Convene a series of community conversations to discuss the past and present. Build a coalition to organize an annual event that commemorates the past.
  • Create a revenue-sharing partnership with the local black press to demonstrate your commitment to media that serves the community in ways that you cannot.
  • Create a panel of news advisers from the community to help recommend coverage and hold you accountable for your work. (Only do this if you are open to hearing what they have to say.)

One last thing: Keep the door open. An true reckoning of the past will create the opportunity to build new relationships with people and organizations in your community who in the past may not have been interested. This is the silver lining — don’t waste it.