Defined by its yellow-bordered covers and stunning photography, the magazine has been a window to the world for many Americans, featuring culture, travel, science, and geography. Toussaint Nothias, a lecturer in the Center for African Studies at Stanford University, says the periodical’s recognition of perpetuating these tropes both domestically and globally is “a powerful and significant move.”

Yet academic criticism of the publication—and others—has existed for decades Nothias says, key among them a 1993 book titled Reading National Geographic, which scrutinized its depictions of Third World cultures. In Africa, this selective framing and wrongful representation continue to date with western outlets, who use Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a guide to the Congo, or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa as the arbiter of pre-colonial Kenya. It is a narrative best captured by the satirical American newspaper The Onion, which wrote “Tens Of Thousands Dead In Ongoing Africa.” These racist generalizations are also rearing their head in Chinese television too.

Nothias says Nat Geo’s admission is part of a broader social momentum regarding questions of diversity and representation in cultural production and the media. Audiences adroit at utilizing social media like in Kenya have also been pushing against reductive narratives, questioning false narratives and forcing outlets like CNN to apologize for slanted coverage. “And this is why not only do we need monitoring and critical appraisal of past coverage, but also ongoing monitoring of media content and frank discussions about the current state of the industry.”

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