Revisionist History: When The Media Gets It Right About Getting It Wrong

May 8, 2018

This post is not about politics. Yet our cultural backdrop is worth noting. We live in an era of “alternative facts,” in which the media has been branded the “enemy of the people” by our country’s leader, and it’s easy to exist inside a social media echo chamber.

I’m a staunch believer in the power of real journalism. I’m a former journalist myself, I work with reporters in my current role, and I have friends and former colleagues who courageously report on challenging topics every day.

In the last two weeks alone, my pal Stephen Montemayor penned an astonishing investigation into how Mexican cartels have turned Minnesota into a meth hub. John Reinan covered an alleged murder involving grand theft auto and identity theft. Tracy Mumford received a Peabody Award for the 74 Seconds podcast, about Minnesota’s first police shooting to go to trial. (Fun fact: Reinan and Mumford are former Fast Horse employees.)

That’s a long way of saying that reporters are doing incredible work every day. Which is why I find it so inspiring that some iconic media institutions have recently taken this moment – in a time when their industry is under siege – to address the times when they didn’t get it right.

“Overlooked” by the New York Times

Obituaries are inherently exclusive. An editor determines who gets written about. Since 1851, the New York Times, often dubbed our nation’s “newspaper of record,” has published the country’s most read obits. In theory, a review of its archives should feature a wide sampling of the most influential people of the past century and a half. Instead it is a roster of mostly white men.

In a project called “Overlooked,” the Times has revisited its archives, publishing new obits for remarkable people, most of whom were women and/or people of color. It even invited the public to nominate overlooked people.

Before digging in, I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Daily podcast, in which Amisha Padnani, digital editor for the Times’ obituaries desk, describes the series. The episode tells the story of Ida B. Wells, whose fearless work as an investigative reporter exposed the systematic lynching of black men. Despite being one of the most famous black women at the time, the Times failed to publish an obit about Wells – until now.

National Geographic: “Our Coverage Was Racist”

National Geographic, meanwhile, hired a third-party historian to investigate its own coverage of people of color, both in the United States and internationally.

The historian’s findings led the magazine to declare in a bold headline: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” The story chronicles, in vivid detail, examples of racist coverage.

National Geographic then dedicated an entire issue to race, exploring “how race defines, separates, and unites us.” Much like the Times solicited nominations for overlooked obits, National Geographic asked readers to share their own stories using the hashtag #IDefineMe.

Surely it would be better for the media – and brands – to get it right the first time. It would make this type of revisionist history unnecessary. But there’s something refreshing about how these prominent publications are seeking to rectify past mistakes and open up a public dialogue, rather than assuming they have all the answers. It’s a great model for companies and brands to learn from as well.