Critical Thinking: Should Newspapers Apologize for Their Sins of the Distant Past?

Critical Thinking: Should Newspapers Apologize for Their Sins of the Distant Past?

In October, the president of the South Carolina NAACP called on the Augusta Chronicle to issue an apology for publishing slavery-related content, such as ads seeking slaves, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Should newspapers apologize for their sins of the distant past?

 

Marisa Pesa, 19, sophomore, Capital (Ohio) University
Pesa is a professional writing, creative writing and philosophy major. She has been on the staff of her student newspaper, The Chimes, for two years, and is now the publication’s layout editor and chief staff-reporter.

If I was publisher of the Augusta Chronicle, I would not run an apology.

An apology often implies admission of guilt, but no living Chronicle staff member is at fault for running such ads. We must also keep in mind that past publishers are viewed as guilty for eliciting the bondage of a people only in the modern age. During the 18th and 19th centuries when slavery was legal, the Chronicle did not technically partake in any illegal activity.

Therefore, an apology from today’s Chronicle would seem disconnected and less important than addressing closer racial issues, such as racial micro-aggressions or lack of diversified workplaces.

I agree with the Chronicle’s president Dana Atkins when he says that newspapers act as time capsules, documenting both the good and the bad history. Seeing as the majority of people condemn slavery today, modern newspapers must be embarrassed by what their predecessors once published.

But an apology cannot retract the ads, just as it cannot erase 245 years of slavery.

Publically apologizing for past publishers’ sins begs the questions: Who would the apology benefit? Why did the NAACP request apologies only for publishing ads and not racist editorials? Would an apology service the public or merely polish the Chronicle’s name?

The apology can only serve as good PR for both the NAACP and the Chronicle. Black-and-white stories sell. Media has been known to exploit racial tension and will continue to do so if we dwell on past mistakes instead of trying to fix present problems. And if a newspaper is to apologize for one sin, wouldn’t it be expected to address all its sins?  Newspapers, to exhibit the importance of free press and public trust in news, should not fold under pressure from outside organizations.

 

Stephen Henderson, 44, editorial page editor, Detroit Free Press
Henderson has been editorial page editor of the Free Press since January 2009. Prior to that, he was a reporter, editorial writer and editor at the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. He is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

It’s pretty easy—and rather meaningless—to apologize for something you never did.

So I’ve always looked with a skeptical and somewhat discrediting eye at editors who issue mea culpas, however sincere, for the racial sins of editors who came before them.

No one today can take responsibility for fugitive slave ads, or editorial campaigns against abolition or the civil rights movement. And who’s to say that the editors who committed those transgressions might feel compelled to apologize? Reaching back through history to speak for others is an exercise fraught with the danger of presumption and misunderstanding.

Instead, I think current newspaper editors ought to speak for themselves, in the powerful and important voice they’ve been gifted. Use the newspaper’s reporting and commentary resources to thoroughly explore and document the paper’s racial history, and share the details with readers. Explain how and why the paper’s past unfolded, and—this is probably most important—put it into current context. Talk about the differences between now and then, and outline the paper’s commitment to fairness and equality today—not just in terms of coverage, but also in terms of hiring and other business conduct. Hold community forums where the newspaper’s critics and staff can address the past and the present. Reach for understanding the way only a news organization might.

Better, in my judgment, to confront the ghosts of racial history the way newspapers should confront all controversies—with dogged reporting, analysis and community engagement.

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Published: December 10, 2014

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