2023 Topical Reporting: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Identity, Medium Newsroom finalist

Publishing Prejudice

About the Project

Like many major institutions, The Oregonian/OregonLive looked inward after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Oregon is one of the whitest states, and Portland is the whitest big city in America. That is an artifact of racist policies and practices, many of which, it turns out, were promulgated by The Oregonian. We assigned an investigative team to dig deeply into our past coverage and committed to publishing the findings.

What we found was deeply disturbing. The newspaper supported Jim Crow segregation. It opposed extending the right to vote to Black people and women. Its xenophobic advocacy helped make Oregon one of just two states where a jury could convict someone of a felony by a non-unanimous decision.

The stories, which were published in October, had a swift impact. A local university announced it would rename one of its buildings that carried the name of its first graduate, who served as The Oregonian’s editor for decades and whose racist editorials were exposed in one story. Two school districts also signaled their intent to rename elementary schools that bear his name.

To reduce implicit bias and enhance the stories, the newsroom created a novel, months-long review process to obtain iterative feedback from people of color before publication.

The Oregonian/OregonLive also contracted with two former newsroom employees, who each had chaired the newsroom diversity committee. They reviewed story drafts and provided important guidance, helping identify reporting holes, offering feedback on issues to expand or condense, and providing recommendations on ways to limit additional harm to communities of color through word choice and story framing. In a first for the newsroom, we also paid five community members to review story drafts. We knew early on the project should include an apology. But should it be from the institution, through its Editorial Board and the unsigned editorials that speak for the organization? Or should it be from the editor? We chose the latter: an apology from a human being, with a name attached to it.

Reader response was overwhelmingly positive. Many readers said they had no idea how bad The Oregonian’s past coverage had been. Communities of color, while more familiar with our failures, were heartened by the acknowledgment. The Skanner, a Black owned community paper, reprinted the editor’s apology in full. Before the project published, the editor was invited to a presentation by members of the Nakashima family, descendants of the man whose experiences in a WWII prison camp The Oregonian audaciously tried to debunk. They brought out a framed copy of the 1942 article.

It was clear the moment was right, and Editor Therese Bottomly stood and apologized in person to the Nakashima family and the Japanese community in Oregon. This, and the later published apology, were a long-overdue acknowledgment of the harms done. We are proud to nominate this project for your consideration. Therese Bottomly, Editor