Good journalists believe deeply in the power of transparency and truth-telling to bring about positive change. People and institutions are made better if they must explain their decisions, face their critics, confront their mistakes and learn from them.
While we usually shine our spotlight on others in power, today we turn it on ourselves.
We look back 80 years and examine our newspaper’s coverage of the forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II, including hundreds of Bainbridge Island residents who were the first targets of Executive Order 9066. This week marks the anniversary of that shameful moment in our national and local history.
A team from our newsroom pored over the March 30, 1942, edition of The Seattle Daily Times (as we were called then), critiquing A1 (the front page) through a present-day lens of accuracy and fairness. The group included writers, editors, artists, designers, photographers, videographers, a news researcher and a digital producer.
They examined pages from that critical time and consulted experts from Densho, a Japanese American history group. They also researched the work of other nearby publications and interviewed our contrite publisher, Frank Blethen, whose ancestors owned the paper then (and back to the late 1800s).
Among other things, the team found a slur for Japanese and Japanese American people used time and again, in huge headline type, at the top of front pages and throughout the newspaper. They read reports on the arrests of “dangerous” Japanese Americans, which ran with no evidence of the supposed threat. And they saw how our newspaper parroted government euphemisms like “humane” and “efficient” to describe the treatment of people who were ripped from their lives, homes and families.
As I looked over the 80-year-old pages the group turned up, I was struck surprisingly hard by another, seemingly more benign, discovery: a line in a story low on the front page, describing those being forced toward prison camps as “leaving in tears, some with smiles and others with traditional stoic faces.”
That racist “stoic” stereotype is paternalistic, as a Densho reviewer pointed out. It’s also dehumanizing and just plain oblivious.
But another reason it bothered me so much is that it’s closer to the kind of mistake we could — and sometimes do — make today. My own unsettled feeling was heightened when I reviewed the notes our team made as it annotated the historical pages with critiques. One editor described the phrase as “a racist stereotype we would never use today.” Then she added: “(at least I hope I’d never see this come across my desk today …)”
That editor was Crystal Paul, interim features editor and the leader of this project. Paul, who joined the Times in 2018, began advocating within the newsroom for this type of accountability project soon after she arrived. The reason: She was disturbed by mistakes we’d made — in both the distant and the recent past — and the resulting mistrust she encountered when reporting for us among communities of color.
She recalls prospective sources side-eyeing her and she felt shame and anger as she learned of our missteps — some recent. Things like detailing the irrelevant criminal record of a shooting victim. Or repeating police accounts that obscure the truth to shift blame. Or swooping into certain neighborhoods to cover crimes or other bad news, while neglecting to write about the achievements and resilience of those areas the rest of the time.
Paul searched for a way to begin earning back the trust of our doubters. Accountability felt like one important step.
“I realized there’s not much point in being angry about things we can’t fix now,” she said. “But there are serious consequences to our past coverage.
“We are part of the legacy of institutional racism in this country. If we don’t acknowledge that then we’re part of continuing it.”
Graphics Editor Emily Eng, along with artist Jennifer Luxton and other staff members, landed on the idea of annotating the historical pages. The concept, Eng said, was to bring readers along on our thought process as we reflected and learned from past mistakes.
She noted that among the large number of staffers who wrote comments on the pages, there was a common thread: About 30 percent of the observations overlapped with one another. But tellingly, many staffers had their own, singular observations.
“It reinforces the idea that you need people with different perspectives in the newsroom looking at these things,” Eng said. “Each person brings a different analysis to it.”
Our project is not unique among news organizations.
Other media have conducted similar self-critiques. The Los Angeles Times, in a 2020 series called “Our reckoning with racism,” examined past coverage and featured the voices of staffers reflecting on their own troubling experiences. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a similar project, “Black city. White paper.” And The Baltimore Sun opened its examination with this headline: “We are deeply and profoundly sorry.”
Our team is considering future installments for this project, which we have named A1 Revisited. Sadly, it won’t be hard to find other periods of coverage that cry out for examination. And not all of those will be in the distant past. We hope you, our readers, will help by pointing to past transgressions and — as always — by holding us accountable for the work we publish now.
We are deeply sorry for our harmful coverage of the incarceration of Japanese Americans and for the pain we caused in the past that still reverberates today. We are still learning hard lessons. We acknowledge the power we have, and the need to wield it responsibly.
Looking back as we are today makes for a very painful reflection. And one that is absolutely necessary.