Posted on February 23, 2022

For Decades, the Baltimore Sun Promoted Policies That Oppressed Black Marylanders

Editorial Board, Baltimore Sun, February 18, 2022

Throughout its 185 years, The Baltimore Sun has served an important role in Maryland: uncovering corruption, influencing policy, informing businesses and enlightening communities. But legacies like ours are often complicated. We bore witness to many injustices across generations, and while we worked to reverse many of them, some we made worse.

The newspaper’s founder, Arunah S. Abell, is credited with bringing affordable and independent journalism to everyday citizens in Baltimore, beginning in 1837, at a time when newspapers were focused on moneyed, merchant classes and special interests. But like others in this country during that time, Abell was a Southern sympathizer who supported slavery and segregation. And this newspaper, which grew prosperous and powerful in the years leading up to the Civil War and beyond, reinforced policies and practices that treated African Americans as lesser than their white counterparts — restricting their prospects, silencing their voices, ignoring their stories and erasing their humanity.

Instead of using its platforms, which at times included both a morning and evening newspaper, to question and strike down racism, The Baltimore Sun frequently employed prejudice as a tool of the times. It fed the fear and anxiety of white readers with stereotypes and caricatures that reinforced their erroneous beliefs about Black Americans.

Through its news coverage and editorial opinions, The Sun sharpened, preserved and furthered the structural racism that still subjugates Black Marylanders in our communities today. African Americans systematically have been denied equal opportunity and access in every sector of life — including health care, employment, education, housing, personal wealth, the justice system and civic participation. They have been refused the freedom to simply be, without the weight of oppression on their backs.

For this, we are deeply ashamed and profoundly sorry.

Our contribution to this maltreatment is a dark and disgraceful component of The Sun’s past. As an institution, we’ve called on many others to recognize and rectify their own bigoted practices, past and present, particularly in these recent years of a national reckoning on race. It is our responsibility to do the same within our own walls.

We have made efforts before to bolster diversity and inclusion, but the evolution has been slow. The death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody in 2015, and the national light it shone on the persistent disparities in the city, shook us out of our complacency. And, as a movement grew across the country, as more Black Americans died at the hands of police — Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Anton Black, George Floyd — so did our obligation to scrutinize The Sun’s past.

And so, now we turn the spotlight on ourselves and our institution, looking at our history through a modern-day lens in an attempt to better understand our communities, the effect we have had on them, and the distrust engendered by The Sun’s actions. As part of that process, members of The Sun’s editorial board and its Diversity Committee, made up of staff volunteers, consulted the paper’s archives and several other archives online, including and ProQuest, which we accessed through the Baltimore County Public Library. We found appalling coverage that clearly furthered prejudice and alienated many of our readers.

Among the paper’s offenses:

  • Classified ads selling enslaved people or offering rewards for their return, the first of which appeared just two months after the paper’s launch in May 1837;
  • Editorials in the early 1900s seeking to disenfranchise Black voters because, as The Sun opinion writers wrote, “the exclusion of the ignorant and thriftless negro vote will make for better political conditions” and to support racial segregation in neighborhoods to preserve what Sun writers called the “dominant and superior” white race;
  • A failure to hire any African American journalists before the 1950s, and too few Black journalists ever since;
  • The identification of Black people by race in articles into the early 1960s, until progressive readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions if the labels weren’t removed;
  • A reliance by too many of us for too long on the word of law enforcement over that of Black residents who said they were being improperly targeted by police;
  • A 2002 editorial dismissal of African American lawyer Michael Steele, running mate to gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich, as bringing “little to the team but the color of his skin”;
  • A dearth of stories about issues relevant and important to non-white communities, and a failure to feature Black residents in stories of achievement and inspiration, rather than crime and poverty, on a level proportionate to that of their white counterparts.

The paper’s prejudice hurt people. It hurt families, it hurt communities, and it hurt the nation as a whole by prolonging and propagating the notion that the color of someone’s skin has anything to do with their potential or their worth to the wider world.

The Sun’s bigotry also hurt its business. It cost the paper readership and community credibility, particularly in Baltimore City, where the African American population swelled from about a fifth of residents when Abell founded the paper, to more than 60% today. Distrust of The Sun has been handed down through generations of Black Marylanders, deservedly so.

We who make up The Sun today are committed to atoning for the paper’s past wrongs regarding race and have taken steps toward an intentionally inclusive future in our pages and professional practices. We know it’s not enough to simply avoid doing further harm by rejecting stereotypes; we must actively work against them by reflecting and promoting the experiences of the full spectrum of our population, across racial, religious, economic, sexual and social boundaries.

In recognition of this, the paper has taken a number of steps over the past several years. They include:

  • Launching a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion reporting team focused on telling the stories of underserved groups;
  • Developing a cultural competency style guide to help ensure that our coverage of Black, Hispanic, Latino and Asian American communities; Indigenous people; people with disabilities; and LGBTQ+ individuals is respectful, accurate, inclusive and fair;
  • Building a database of sources made up of people of varying backgrounds to diversify the voices who bring analysis and insight to our stories;
  • Nurturing a talent pipeline to broaden the pool of applicants we promote and hire from: From 2018 to 2021, the percentage of non-white people who make up the newsroom rose from 20.7% to 26%, and of the 26 people we’ve hired over the past two years, 13 of them — 50% — have been people of color;
  • Partnering with the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a nonprofit training organization, to provide diversity and bias education for the staff, and to audit content across Baltimore Sun Media properties to gauge how well our reporting and opinion coverage reflects the variety of race, class, gender, generation, geography and sexual orientation in our communities;
  • Forming outreach committees to engage with groups we have inadequately served in the past to find out how we can do better. Among those contacted were Black funeral home directors, some of whom told us they didn’t believe we would welcome their input or feature news obituaries of African American residents;
  • Making a point of diversifying the photos we publish to better represent the communities we cover.

Our approach today, unlike that of the country’s “colorblind” era of the 1980s and ‘90s, is to actively see the differences among us and work to understand: why they exist, what they mean to whom and why, whether they’re real or perceived, and whether they should be honored or struck down. Pretending we were all the same never worked, because it ignored the fact that we’re not all given the same opportunities to succeed or fail on our merits; some are privileged, others are oppressed. Refusing to recognize that only prolonged difficult conversations and much-needed soul-searching, dooming more generations to repeat the cycle.

As journalists, as the Fourth Estate, we at the paper have a public responsibility to confront and illuminate societal ills so that they can be addressed and eradicated. On race, The Sun’s history is one we’re not proud to share, and we should warn you that it’s offensive to read. But addressing one’s wrongs begins by acknowledging them. {snip}