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National Geographic faced up to its racist past. Did it actually get better?

Inside the reckoning at an American media institution.

National Geographic was ahead of the curve.

While it took last summer’s uprisings after the police killing of George Floyd for many media outlets to address bias in their reporting and newsroom culture, the magazine announced its own racial reckoning in 2018. That year it dedicated its April issue to the topic of race, and Susan Goldberg — the first woman to be the magazine’s editor-in-chief — publicly acknowledged the publication’s long history of racism in its coverage of people of color in the US and abroad.

“Until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” Goldberg wrote in an editor’s letter introducing the issue. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”

Goldberg vowed that the magazine would face up to its past and do better, and the Race Issue was meant to be the beginning of a larger reexamination for the magazine. While the issue received its fair share of criticism, especially for a cover story that critics felt made simplistic assumptions about the idea of a post-racial future, it was a major statement by a publication that had long seemed to believe itself beyond reproach. The media industry was watching for what came next.

In National Geographic’s 2018 Race Issue, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg vowed to “rise above” the magazine’s racist past.
National Geographic

But change has been slow and difficult over the past three years, and many current and former staffers deem it inadequate. The magazine is still struggling to make good on its promise of a new approach to covering the world.

It’s a high-profile example of the complicated path to significant and lasting change, and what happens when a public pronouncement isn’t matched by meaningful action. That’s a risk that a lot of companies, not just media outlets, run in the months and years following last summer’s public reckoning around racism and anti-Blackness — will they make good on their Instagram posts and supportive statements with tangible work once public attention is elsewhere?

Vox spoke with nearly 20 current and former National Geographic staffers, ranging from administrative assistants to editorial leadership, who described instances in which employees tried to speak up about racial insensitivities in coverage, only to have their concerns brushed aside or ignored, even after the magazine had publicly pledged to do better. Multiple staffers of color also describe a culture that left them feeling devalued and demeaned.

It has largely been up to junior staffers, many of them people of color, to push the magazine to deliver on the kinds of promises it made in the Race Issue, staffers say. They’ve had an impact, including producing a list of resources to improve diversity and representation in the story assignment process. Still, “it’s a lot of teaching all the time,” one staffer said. “Are they really listening?”

All staffers who spoke to Vox did so on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution by a publication that retains social and economic power in the media industry.

National Geographic did not respond to specific questions for this story. A spokesperson for the magazine said in a statement that “National Geographic is unequivocally committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and has undertaken a wide range of activities to put that commitment into practice,” pointing to initiatives announced in June 2020, including a new diversity and inclusion council, required unconscious bias training for employees, and a scholarship program for Black college students.

Several current and former staffers also say the magazine’s culture has improved somewhat since the summer of 2020, when National Geographic, like many media outlets, announced plans to diversify its staffing amid nationwide protests against racism and police violence. They point to improvements like better tracking of contributor diversity and more events and programs geared toward representation and inclusion. But they say more work, structurally and substantially, remains to be done.

Such accounts aren’t unique in a media landscape where many companies have vowed to be more inclusive and hired people of color, only to reportedly neglect their perspectives and career development. National Geographic was different in that it staked out its goal early and publicly: to reckon with its racist past and chart a different future. But in many ways, it serves as a case study for an industry that has struggled to meet the needs of its workers and its audience.

Change takes a lot more than a single issue on race, more than a new residency program or event series — and certainly more than expecting junior staffers to educate their superiors on matters of race, observers inside and outside the publication believe. It takes a sustained commitment to action coming from the highest levels of senior leadership, and that’s a commitment some say they have yet to see.

National Geographic, from 1888 to today

National Geographic was built in the image of its founders.

The magazine was the brainchild of the National Geographic Society, a nonprofit started by a group of elite white male professionals including geographers, explorers, teachers, lawyers, cartographers, military officers, and financiers with an interest in science and geography. The result was a marriage of science, entertainment, photography, and advertising that would become the iconic yellow-bordered magazine recognized for its picture-perfect “objective” window into the world. In the course of a few decades after its 1888 launch, subscriptions soared from 1,000 to 2 million, with a readership that was predominantly white upper-middle-class American professionals.

Articles in these early days were largely focused on defining geography and explaining complex surveying methods, but the magazine’s bias toward whiteness as “civilized” was clear from the beginning and a reflection of the larger ethos of colonialism at the time. In the conclusion of an April 1889 article titled “Africa, Its Past and Future,” Gardiner G. Hubbard, the founder and first president of the National Geographic Society, wrote, “The Negro has never developed any high degree of [European] civilization; and even if he has made considerable progress ... when that contact ceased he has deteriorated in barbarism.”

The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 by a group of elite white men including inventor Alexander Graham Bell (front row, far right, with beard and cigar) and explorer Robert Peary (front row, center, with mustache and cane).
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason, the scholar Goldberg tapped to examine the archives for the magazine’s Race Issue, noted to Vox in 2018 that “the magazine was born at the height of so-called ‘scientific’ racism and imperialism,” a time when the US was rapidly developing as a leading global industrial power, expanding its empire through wars and acquiring new territories like Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. It was also birthing the American eugenics movement, which believed in the genetic superiority of Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon people. It was this culture of white supremacy, Mason said then, “that shaped the outlook of the magazine’s editors, writers, and photographers, who were always white and almost always men.”

You don’t have to look further than the magazine’s mea culpa for evidence of this. As Goldberg pointed out in her editor’s letter, National Geographic’s December 1916 issue on Australia is one example of the magazine’s failures to “push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”

In an article titled “Lonely Australia: The Unique Continent,” the caption that appears below photographs of two Aboriginal natives reads, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” These “primitive ancestors” are only discussed for their hunting prowess, barely considered people but rather described as “the Australian native stock.”

White colonizers, on the other hand, were depicted as adventurous, relatable, and generous. “The Australians’ ideal is a continent of whites without the ‘taint of color,’” geologist Herbert E. Gregory wrote. “They point to America as a horrible example of an unimaginable mixture of races.”

National Geographic’s December 1916 issue is dedicated to “Lonely Australia.” In the magazine, geologist Herbert E. Gregory writes that Indigenous Aboriginal people “rank lowest in intelligence”; white colonists, meanwhile, are portrayed as nature-loving adventurers.
National Geographic Archive

National Geographic “saw the world through the same elite perspective as American policymakers and politicians based in Washington, DC,” Mason told Vox in his 2018 interview. “They were tied to that elite white male perspective. The magazine almost thought of itself as a branch of government. It believed very much in the colonial enterprise.”

In spite of — or because of — that perspective, National Geographic became known as a measure of cultural sophistication during the 20th century. In their 1993 book Reading National Geographic, authors Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins wrote, “Generally speaking, National Geographic helped white, upwardly mobile Americans to locate themselves in a changing world.” The most powerful tool in their arsenal was the still photograph.

“If you want to understand how race works at National Geographic, you have to see beyond the racial epithets,” Lutz recently told Vox. “You have to look at what the people are doing in their images and what it means when someone smiles versus frowns, when they are white versus brown, the range of messaging that comes through in an image and the choices that they are making.”

Those choices, argued Lutz and Collins in their book, were almost always made with the comfort of a white audience in mind. The duo analyzed a large set of photographs published in the magazine from 1950 to 1986 to trace the effects of post-World War II decolonization and the Vietnam War. What they found was visual messaging that aligned itself with the white colonizer and all but ignored domestic racial and political conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s.

Published photographs instead exoticized far-off lands inhabited by Black and brown people, who were often seen as technologically backward and trapped in ancient ritual, and were almost always photographed looking at the camera with a seemingly natural smile. Black women were depicted as the most primitive of their subjects, their nakedness in stark contrast to clothed white women purportedly exemplifying civilization.

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National Geographic’s photos often emphasized Native peoples’ nakedness in contrast to the “civilized” clothing of white Westerners. In the August 1982 issue, the caption accompanying a portrait of 12-year-old Fidelis Pukue (left) declares she “stands as proud as her fledgling nation.” The photo on the right shows a tourist posing with members of the Macá Indian tribe.
National Geographic Archive

Lutz recalls National Geographic’s outrage when her scholarship was published nearly 30 years ago; the magazine characterized her and Collins’s work as having no “merit or relevance,” she said. “I didn’t see any evidence of a reckoning after my work,” recalled Lutz. “They invited us in to watch the process and were offended when we reported what we saw.”

Impervious to criticism, the brand expanded beyond its print publication and grew into a media juggernaut in the modern era, spinning up nearly 40 local-language editions and a TV channel, and sponsoring research projects around the world. The magazine has millions of subscribers, and the company says it does particularly well with men, readers with postgraduate degrees, and millennials with household incomes over $200,000. It also remains one of America’s 25 most trusted brands, according to the polling firm Morning Consult.

In 2014, Susan Goldberg — who previously held senior editor positions at Bloomberg News, the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and San Jose Mercury News — was tapped by the brand’s new CEO to take the helm as editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine. The following year, the magazine and TV properties were sold to 21st Century Fox in a deal creating a new joint venture called National Geographic Partners (and leading to significant layoffs). In December 2017, Disney purchased a majority of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including FX, The Simpsons, and National Geographic, to better compete with content powerhouses Netflix and Amazon.

Amid the turmoil, Goldberg added editorial director of National Geographic Partners to her title. She is now in charge of the company’s digital journalism, magazines, podcasts, maps, newsletters, and Instagram, which boasts over 150 million followers.

Goldberg’s ownership of the magazine’s racist and colonialist history, just a few years into the role, seemed remarkable. “I want a future editor of National Geographic to look back at our coverage with pride—not only about the stories we decided to tell and how we told them but about the diverse group of writers, editors, and photographers behind the work,” she wrote in the Race Issue.

Her pledge to usher in a new era of diversity and inclusion, in both coverage and staffing, was received from the outside as a bold act of leadership. Now the question was whether the magazine, as a publication and as a workplace, could deliver.

After a public promise of change, a difficult path forward

Goldberg’s arrival did bring progress to National Geographic on some fronts, especially increasing the number of women represented in the publication. In a 2017 panel discussion at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, for example, she noted that under her leadership, the percentage of stories in the magazine written by men had dropped from about 75 percent to 57 percent. “We are going out and finding new people,” she said.

That was no small feat at a time when many publications were just beginning to address longstanding gender imbalances — for example, a 2017 analysis by the group VIDA found that 60 percent of articles at the New Yorker that year, 64 percent of those in the Atlantic, and 77 percent of articles in the New York Review of Books were written by men.

Susan Goldberg attends an event for the magazine’s “Gender Revolution” issue in 2017.
Desiree Navarro/WireImage via Getty Images

National Geographic also drew praise for a January 2017 special issue on the “Gender Revolution,” which featured a cover photograph of 9-year-old Avery Jackson, the first openly transgender person to be on the cover of the magazine. “Given the challenges facing the LGBTQ community in the years ahead, the timing of this issue couldn’t feel more appropriate,” Curtis M. Wong wrote at HuffPost Queer Voices at the time, when Donald Trump was poised to assume the presidency and institute numerous anti-LGBTQ policies.

The publication has also become more diverse at its highest level in recent years, with two women of color joining its executive team. Debra Adams Simmons, a veteran journalist and former editor at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, became the magazine’s executive editor for culture in 2017, and has also taken a role in diversity initiatives. In January 2020, Indira Lakshmanan, a former executive editor at the Pulitzer Center, became the magazine’s senior executive editor, overseeing several subject areas including science and travel.

And while the cover story of the 2018 Race Issue was criticized, many also praised the frankness with which the issue addressed the publication’s racist history. “The magazine’s admission is rare, and vindicates readers who, like me, have always had a visceral reaction to National Geographic’s covers and ethos,” Doreen St. Félix wrote in the New Yorker.

“I didn’t detect any defensiveness in the editors when I spoke with them about this,” John Edwin Mason, the University of Virginia professor who worked on the Race Issue, told Vox in 2018. “Instead, I sensed a genuine willingness to address the magazine’s past and to improve the ways it depicts people of color.”

However, current and former staffers say the publication’s coverage and culture have been slow to change, and that subsequent efforts by junior staffers to raise questions about coverage have been met with misunderstanding and resistance from the top.

The cover for National Geographic’s April 2018 Race Issue.
National Geographic Archive
The November 2018 cover depicting the “Battle for the American West.”
National Geographic Archive

Just a few months after the Race Issue, for example, staffers were concerned about a cover image, this one illustrating a story about conflicts over protected lands in Utah. The photograph was a confounding choice for a magazine that had pledged to be better on matters of race: a white man seated on horseback, gazing across the expanse of a prairie as though ready to explore what lay beyond. The headline: “Battle for the American West.”

Staffers felt the image of a lone white cowboy, sunlit against the backdrop of a Western landscape, reinforced some of the racist stereotypes — of white people as saviors and rightful stewards of the land — that the magazine had pledged to put behind it. Some pushed back on the choice. “Even the photographer didn’t want the cowboy on the cover,” a former editor told Vox.

Critics of the white “cowboy” image were overruled by Goldberg, the editor said. When the cover went out to newsstands in November 2018, it was criticized for many of the same reasons staffers had been uncomfortable with it. “The image of the white cowboy reproduces and romanticizes the mythic iconography of settler colonialism and white supremacy,” Mason told Vox at the time. That was doubly disappointing coming so soon after the promises put forth in the Race Issue, a staffer told Vox this year; the reckoning around the Race Issue was a “really positive step,” the staffer said, “and then we just kind of made the ‘Battle for the American West’ thing in November.”

Another internal controversy arose a few months later around an April 2019 story about suicide bombings in Sri Lanka. The story was written by Robert Draper, a longtime National Geographic contributor who is white and not from Sri Lanka. For several staffers, the choice of Draper raised larger questions about how the magazine covers countries outside the US: They saw it as a missed opportunity to highlight a voice from Sri Lanka at a time of crisis for the country when elevating such voices was especially important. Instead, the magazine was yet again choosing to have a white American writer cover another country, despite the publication’s history of outsiders publishing problematic narratives about other parts of the world — and its promise to leave that history behind.

“We need to build up our cadre of writers abroad so that when these crises hit, we have more choices to consider,” one staffer said in a Slack channel that included both junior and senior staffers. Messages from the conversation, which took place before the story’s publication, were obtained by Vox. Staff members were also critical of an early version of the story’s headline: “Sri Lanka’s latest violence underscores the need to heal its divisions.”

“I’m a bit concerned about saying what Sri Lanka ‘needs’ to do in a first-person essay by a writer who is not Sri Lankan,” a staffer said in the same Slack channel.

After staffers brought up the issue, editors did make some changes to the headline, but the piece retained a distinct outsider’s perspective, saying, “Theirs is a country of sumptuous temples and uncluttered beaches, elephants and verdant tea plantations.”

Goldberg defended the choice of Draper for the story. “I’m delighted that Robert Draper — one of our best writers and someone who has covered the conflict in Sri Lanka for both us and the NYT — was quickly able to turn this essay,” she wrote on Slack in response to staff criticism. “I certainly agree that having lots of correspondents all over the world would give us even more voices and perspectives,” she added. However, “one thing we never want to return to are the days when only women can write ‘women’s’ stories, only men can cover sports, only African Americans can cover the black community, and so forth.”

Vox obtained an annotated screenshot of a private National Geographic Slack channel, in which staffers expressed their concerns regarding the magazine’s approach to a story about Sri Lanka. Participants’ names have been redacted.

Yet in Draper, Goldberg was praising a writer whose past work on Sri Lanka sometimes echoed the condescending, voyeuristic tone the magazine was trying to put behind it. “It’s entirely possible to visit the country formerly known as Ceylon in a state of blissful ignorance, to ogle its elephants and leopards roaming about in the national parks, or to languish on the many beach resorts in coastal Galle and Batticaloa, and in that way sidestep altogether the scabs of history,” he wrote in a travel story for the New York Times in 2015.

In the Race Issue, Goldberg specifically had pledged to move away from a colonialist past in which American journalists reported on countries around the world with an exoticizing perspective. In covering the violence in Sri Lanka, the magazine missed a clear opportunity to deliver on its promises by choosing a writer from Sri Lanka who could bring to the story an insider’s expertise and nuance.

The controversy over the Draper story sparked a discussion on Slack about larger issues at the magazine. The lack of diversity among contributors “is a huge problem they need to fix,” one staffer said in a private Slack room, messages from which were also obtained by Vox. “If we don’t have the right person to do a story in a crunch on such a sensitive topic perhaps we should consider not doing one at all.”

Though Simmons, now executive editor, is credited internally with recruiting new writers of color for the magazine, staffers say there has yet to be a larger systematic effort to diversify the contributor base. (National Geographic did not respond to Vox’s questions about diversity and representation among contributors.)

“Indira [Lakshmanan] will, after the fact, count if we have any people of color on certain stories,” one staffer said. “But in terms of a structural solution, I don’t think there has been any change at all.”

More broadly, “bringing in a woman of color in leadership is great but it doesn’t automatically translate that the publication will be more inclusive,” one former staffer of color said. Nor is it the sole responsibility of journalists of color, even in upper management, to ensure diversity within a historically white organization. Indeed, people of color across industries have described being hired into high-profile roles only to discover they had little actual power in a white-dominated workplace. For example, TV writer Sunil Nayar left his job as executive producer of the CBS show All Rise last year after finding that, as he put it to the New York Times, “I was only there because I’m the brown guy.”

National Geographic, for its part, is a rigid, hierarchical organization, with authority concentrated among a limited number of senior staffers. “It’s a really small group of people that decide what stories are told, and it happens without a lot of input,” one staffer said.

That group includes a handful of senior editors and writers, and, at the top, Goldberg herself. “Susan has the power; she’s the ultimate decision-maker,” the staffer said. “I don’t think there is anyone that can come close to being her equal.” (Goldberg answers to the corporate leadership of National Geographic Partners, a joint venture between the nonprofit National Geographic Society and Disney.)

That’s not unusual for the editor-in-chief of a media company, particularly a legacy media company. Those in this position often take a highly public role in which their professional identity is linked with the successes or failures of the publication — think Dean Baquet at the New York Times or Anna Wintour at Vogue. They typically have the final say over staffing decisions and, while they may not edit most stories themselves, often decide the overall direction of coverage and may request stories they want to see or veto those they don’t.

At National Geographic, that looks like word trickling down from senior staff to junior staff about what Goldberg wants — like more coverage of, say, volcanoes, or the inauguration — or what she doesn’t. A lot of conversations end with, “Susan doesn’t like to see things like that,” one staffer said. “It’s a place where everyone is walking on eggshells, including editors.”

Raising concerns — whether that means challenging stories that might be problematic or pushing for changes to hiring practices — at National Geographic can feel fraught, staffers said, with employees fearing that they could easily fall out of favor with Goldberg if they speak up. There’s a feeling that if “you get on her bad side, you’ll get fewer assignments and could get caught up in the next round of layoffs,” one former staffer said.

Nor was it necessarily any easier to raise concerns with other members of the executive team. Simmons “didn’t always listen when we raised flags on sensitive issues,” a former editor said, and Simmons “at the end of the day still answers to Susan.”

While many staffers were afraid of speaking up, some white male photographers seemed to enjoy carte blanche to behave as they wished, according to several former staffers. “Photographers are treated like gods,” one former staffer said. “They can have outbursts, can be rude to staff; if you are a white male photographer at National Geographic, you’d get away with it.”

A reliance on white male contributors is evident in coverage: The journalists responsible for the magazine’s most prestigious assignments remain overwhelmingly white. According to a Vox analysis, since the April 2018 Race Issue, more than 75 percent of the magazine’s cover stories have been assigned to white male photographers. Several current and former staffers say they cannot recall a cover story ever having been assigned to a Black female photographer. (National Geographic did not respond to questions about the diversity of photographers for cover stories.)

Multiple staffers and freelance contributors of color who have worked for the magazine described experiences that left them feeling tokenized, belittled, or discriminated against. One freelance photojournalist who was hired to work on the Race Issue said that while going through images with her editor, she mentioned understanding why she’d been hired — her work complemented the journalist’s story. The editor, who was also a person of color, had a different explanation: “We just needed a Black female photographer.”

“I just kept quiet,” the photojournalist said, adding they thought, “I cannot wait to be done with this story so I can move on.”

The incident came in the wake of what the photojournalist described as overbearing treatment by the same editor — who, she said, called, texted, and emailed her to check in so frequently while she was on assignment that it made it hard to do her job. It showed “a lack of trust,” she said. “I’m fully capable of doing this job; I’m fully capable of telling these stories.”

The same freelancer later did one other assignment for the magazine, a project for the advertising side that was supposed to be about racial bias. Editors were concerned that the photographer including a formerly incarcerated man in the project would promote negative stereotypes about Black men, even though his incarceration was an important part of his life story. The freelancer pushed back — “I had to fight for that,” she said — and editors ultimately agreed. But the freelancer felt the episode showed the magazine’s lack of trust in her, a Black journalist, to tell a story about race and racism.

“You want to control something so much, especially when it comes to race, and you’re talking to a Black woman, and you want to push back and tell me I’m wrong,” the freelancer said. “You don’t have the confidence in me that I know what I’m doing.”

Goldberg also got directly involved in editing the freelancer’s introduction text for the project, which was to run alongside the photos, wanting to cut a line stating that “I document these issues through engaging the individual lived experiences of Black Americans.” Goldberg’s reason for the cut: “This describes photojournalism.”

It felt dismissive, the freelancer said. “I know what photojournalism is.”

It was decisions like these, however small they might seem, that made employees and contributors of color feel that their professional expertise and experiences weren’t valued. Such instances of devaluing can add up over time, leading to anxiety and depression and holding people back from doing their best work. The fact that Goldberg, the editorial director of the entire company, got involved at all made her feel “that they had no trust in a Black woman’s work telling stories of racial bias,” the freelancer added.

After these experiences, she says she would never work with National Geographic again. “Working for them doesn’t serve a purpose in my life or my career,” she said.

She was not alone in this feeling. A former staffer, who is Black, describes having her admiration for National Geographic dispelled by the reality of the institution.

“I grew up watching all the National Geographic documentaries,” the staffer said, and she and her mother “would bond over watching their shows.”

But when she started working at the magazine on a contract basis, she said, she repeatedly dealt with “demeaning and rude” treatment from her superior, an editor on the magazine’s executive team. In one 2020 email exchange, he chastised her after she asked follow-up questions about story scheduling. “I’m a little frustrated that you don’t have a better grasp on what needs to move,” he wrote, later adding, “These are basic things you need to be able to do.”

In another exchange, he informed her he was rejecting her timesheet because she recorded overtime hours without seeking approval from him first. “I do find it hard to comprehend that you have worked more than 40 hours of billable work last week,” he wrote. The employee responded with a breakdown of tasks she completed, including, she said, a request from him that had to be done after hours since, according to emails reviewed by Vox, he asked her to do it minutes before 5 pm. However, he responded, “You chose to work overtime without getting prior approval.”

The employee felt that the editor treated her differently from her predecessors, who were both white — her immediate predecessor, who trained her for the role, told her as much — and she wondered if she was being discriminated against because she is a Black woman. On the advice of the temp agency that handled her contract, she asked for a Zoom meeting with her editor last summer. When she brought up her concerns about his critical tone, she said, “he got upset” and “his face turned red.” After that, she said, his demeanor toward her changed — he abandoned all pleasantries and only spoke about work. In September, she was told her contract would not be renewed.

Her experience working with the editor “was terrible,” the former employee said. “It was extremely stressful.”

When she dropped off her computer after her last day of work in September, “I was like, man, I feel so free.”

The last year has brought improvement, but also frustration

Internal efforts to change the environment at National Geographic often seemed to come from relatively junior employees, current and former staffers said.

For example, one group created a Slack channel called “Do Better,” in which they discussed coverage that they felt was problematic or concerning (including Draper’s story on Sri Lanka), and ways to improve. The group created a memo in 2018, which Vox has reviewed, calling on the magazine to work to recruit a more diverse staff and contributor base, and to set goals and track progress toward more inclusive storytelling.

The memo offered numerous suggestions for how to improve representation both internally and in coverage, including a checklist to remind editors to consider diversity and representation when assigning stories, and a more inclusive process for hearing out concerns about stories. The group recommended that the magazine “revisit current editorial print and digital processes to ensure that when issues are flagged, they’re addressed. For example, can voices beyond the executive team be present when stories are pitched and finalized?” The work of the Do Better group led to some changes. For instance, the group produced a list of resources used by some staffers to increase diversity in assigning.

Current and former staffers say they’ve seen more marked improvements after the racial justice uprisings last year. In June, National Geographic Partners released a four-point plan to improve diversity and inclusion at the company. The plan included a residency program for BIPOC journalists with the goal of placing them in full-time jobs at National Geographic or elsewhere in the media industry upon completion. In addition, some parts of the company have instituted new hiring goals for women and people of color, and the company has held several virtual events in which employees from marginalized communities discuss their experiences, such as a recent event addressing anti-Asian bias.

The changes have been heartening to observers both inside and outside the publication. “As frustrating as progress can be, I think the ball is moving in the right direction,” one current staffer said.

Some, however, say the onus remains on junior staff to bring up problems with coverage — and that they continue to come up. Draper, the white journalist who wrote the Sri Lanka story, recently pitched and received the green light to write a story about race in Washington, DC, a staffer said. That assignment also caused controversy internally, but the process of complaining about such stories can be taxing for lower-level editors, especially if they are journalists of color. (National Geographic did not respond to questions about this story.)

“Why do you have to put yourself in that position?” one staffer asked.

National Geographic’s headquarters and museum in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

All too many people in the media industry have found themselves in this position in recent years. With media organizations still often led by white editors, but with an increasing level of diversity among junior staff, many have found themselves pushing for change from the bottom up.

At the food publication Bon Appétit, for example, junior staffers of color like Jesse Sparks (now an editor at Eater, a Vox Media publication) and Ryan Walker-Hartshorn began advocating for shifts like capitalizing the word Black in stories in 2018, according to “The Test Kitchen,” a series for the podcast Reply All. They put together a presentation for management, but Adam Rapoport, the editor-in-chief at the time, “got on his phone and started scrolling the entire time that Jesse was speaking,” Walker-Hartshorn told Reply All. “It was the most disrespectful thing I have ever seen or experienced.”

It took a very public reckoning to force change at the top of Bon Appétit; Rapoport resigned in 2020 after writer Tammie Teclemariam found a 2013 photo of Rapoport in brownface. Nor are newer media organizations immune to the kinds of inequities staffers reported at Bon Appétit — the “Test Kitchen” series was canceled after former Gimlet Media staffers came forward to say that Reply All and its parent company Gimlet suffered from some of the same problems as Bon Appétit.

Publications like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have also been forced to reckon with their practices after news reports and social media posts have revealed employees’ criticisms of company culture. The New York Times, in particular, has been the subject of scrutiny in recent months, with a science journalist resigning after using a racist slur and a podcast producer leaving the paper after reports that he behaved inappropriately toward women. The paper’s editorial page editor, James Bennet, resigned in June 2020 after a public protest, led by Black staffers, against an opinion article by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) advocating for the use of the military against racial justice protesters.

At the Times, Bon Appétit, and elsewhere, public criticism ultimately led to the ouster of people in leadership. Some current and former staffers at National Geographic say the company won’t truly be better until reform happens at the highest levels. “We would need a lot of changes at the top,” one staffer said, adding that “I don’t know how you’d fix” the current leadership.

The stories of those who say they’ve tried to push the company to be better reveal something else that’s all too common as organizations try — and often fail — to reckon with their racism: It can be punishing to be the person always advocating for things to be different.

“By the time I left the company, I had lost so much weight that my pants did not fit me and my hair was falling out,” one former editor said. “The stress made me physically ill.”

“My grandmother had National Geographic on the bookshelf,” another former editor said. She had long aspired to work there. But now, reflecting on her time inside the publication she said, “I almost feel like I was in a toxic relationship with the brand.”

“You love it, you respect it, you want it to be better,” she explained. But “I look back and wonder if I perpetuated some harm.”

Emily Berch contributed reporting and research to this article.


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