Does your news organization owe African Americans an apology? Here’s how to do it the right way.

October 29, 2019

The United States has never fully reckoned with its history of white supremacy, from slavery to mass incarceration, to segregation and housing discrimination that followed.

One way to address a systemic abuse of human rights over time is through a truth commission. More than 40 countries around the world, including Canada, South Africa and most countries in Latin America, have formed such commissions. However, the process in America has been slower and more piecemeal. Individual institutions, from the U.S. Senate and state governments, universities and companies have issued public apologies for their roles in perpetuating and benefitting from slavery.

News institutions are not exempt. A number of news organizations have published open apologies for their contributions to slavery, lynching and discrimination.

Why issue an apology? When journalists make mistakes, newspapers are ethically bound to issue a correction. Ideally, a correction should be timely, proportional and communicated directly to the person or group who was wronged. Racist coverage, however, is more than a single incorrect fact or misspelling, but a systemic mistake that occurred over a long period of time.

An institutional apology is a correction on a much larger scale, much like truth commission is bigger than any individual court case.

But are these institutional apologies effective?

RELATED: Maligned in black and white | Southern newspapers played a major role in racial violence. Do they owe their communities an apology?

I spent years studying truth commissions before turning my attention to racial equity in the United States. I recently examined several news apologies for racism for a research paper, where I reviewed the elements of a meaningful apology and then evaluated several publications’ apologies on those terms.

Here are my main takeaways:

Whoever issues the apology matters

An apology from the editor-in-chief or the editorial board is more powerful than one written by individual reporters because they have power to speak for the institution. Having leadership involved suggests institutional change going forward.

Be proactive

Publications should not wait until a public relations crisis to issue an apology; otherwise the motivation may seem insincere, which weakens the apology overall.

Set the record straight and be transparent

Several publications have enlisted outside researchers to help analyze their coverage before issuing apologies. Doing so suggests some level of neutral observation, but involving members of the newsroom in the process suggests buy-in from the paper’s staff. Ideally, such a process would involve both. Regardless of who’s doing the research, it should be clear what time period is under investigation and how materials were reviewed.

Accept blame and identify harm, both individual and collective.

Consider the difference between the following:

  • “I’m sorry your foot got stepped on.” (Does not accept blame or identify harm)
  • “I’m sorry I stepped on your foot.” (Accepts blame, but does not identify harm.)
  • “I’m sorry I stepped on your foot and broke several of your toes that required multiple surgeries. That caused you not only pain but financial and emotional distress for your entire family, as you could not drive for several months and lost your job.” (Accepts blame and identifies harm).

Measuring the full extent of the harm caused by years of racist coverage is nearly impossible, but some acknowledgement of the larger impact is important. National Geographic, for example, described nearly a century of exclusion and racist coverage, but at no point did the apology address how this coverage might have influenced its global audience, nor the impact on the magazine’s subjects who were overlooked or unfairly portrayed.

The Hartford Courant’s apology in 2000 describes the physical harm to individual slaves in Connecticut, but did not address the sociological impact that centuries of slavery — with its physical and psychological abuse — had on slaves and their families. Likewise, the Montgomery Advertiser focused on individual cases of lynching and how the paper failed to cover those events fairly. The harm in these cases goes beyond those who were murdered, impacting entire communities who were terrorized by such actions.

The Advertiser did, to some extent, address the larger impact caused by lynching that the paper’s biased coverage enabled. (Editor’s note: The apology coincided with the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which focuses on memorializing lynching victims, in Montgomery in 2018.) In an introduction to each article in the series, the paper explains:

“Between 1877 and 1950, more than 360 African Americans were murdered by mobs in Alabama and more than 4,000 were killed nationwide. The acts of racial terrorism, conducted in the name of white supremacy, were almost never punished; created untold human suffering and helped contribute to the Great Migration out of the South.”

Later in the apology, they wrote, “We went along with the 19th- and early 20th-century lies that African-Americans were inferior. We propagated a worldview rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority.”

Communal harm beyond individual lynching victims is mentioned briefly by Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in a video posted on the site in a related article. In that interview, Stevenson describes how families had to go recover the mutilated bodies of their loved ones, or how the mobs often dragged the victims’ bodies through black communities to further intimidate and terrorize them. But overall, this collective trauma is not foregrounded in the series. 

Give voice to victims, both past and present 

Engaging directly with victims and listening to them is a critical element of apology. Papers can give voice to individual victims through historical documents. But if one accepts that the victimization is also collective, those voices need to be heard as well. Very few of the apologies reviewed here quote African American community members or leaders, neither from the past, nor the present. If they had done so, perhaps they would have better articulated the collective, long-term harm that those actions had on individuals, families and communities, and why these events from the past still matter. 

Need to address lack of diversity at the publication, past and present  

When explaining how this racist coverage occurred, one cannot ignore the fact that most, if not all, of the reporters, editors and publishers at mainstream papers at the time were white.

And still, most newsrooms remain disproportionately white, especially in comparison to the populations they cover, according to ASNE data. Two of the papers discussed here, the Hartford Courant and the Montgomery Advertiser, remain among the most disproportionately white newsrooms in the nation.

2018 ASNE data shows that the Hartford Courant and the Montgomery Advertiser remain some of the most disproportionately white in the nation, when compared with the populations that they cover.

If one accepts that implicit bias is real, it suggests these publications may still be producing biased coverage, even if it is unintentional.

The apologies also raises questions about who gets to decide when to apologize and for what. Who gets to craft what that apology looks like? In some ways, the apologies mentioned here reflect the same racial power dynamics that led to the need to apologize in the first place.

Connect the past to the present

The apologies discussed here focused exclusively on the past, suggesting that the biased and flawed reporting — and the harm caused by that reporting— is entirely a thing of the past.

However, decades of research show continued under- and mis-representation of African Americans in all kinds of media, including journalism. Studies show that traditional news values tend to value whiteness over blackness. Murder victims, for example, are more likely to receive more sensational coverage when they are considered “worthy victims” — meaning white, female, young or old, and when they are killed by a stranger who is a member of another race. Recent studies show that whites remain over-represented as crime victims in news coverage.

This impacts how residents view their local news, and whether or not they perceive that coverage as fair and accurate. Residents in majority black and brown neighborhoods are less likely to say that local journalists cover their neighborhoods fairly.

Given that lack of newsroom diversity nationwide, this is unsurprising — which brings me to my last point.

A true apology implies a change in behavior

Apologies should not be one-sided. They should be a collaborative process between perpetrators and victims. Victims need to feel that they have been listened to, and that the perpetrator truly understands how their actions caused harm. For victims to accept an apology, they need to know that the perpetrator feels remorse and will not re-offend. In general, newspapers need to say what they will do going forward to make amends for the past, and to make sure they do not make the same mistakes going forward. Making a specific commitment to diversity in their newsrooms is one place to start.

If this is ever going to change, we have to address it head on. A quality apology that acknowledges the problem and the harm it has caused and commits to taking action is part of that process. If we truly want to live up to the ideals this country was founded on, we will have to fully reckon with the past.

Robin Hoecker is an assistant professor of journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. She can be reached at rhoecker@depaul.edu.