NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


Nine times out of 10, it is the adjectives that get journalists in trouble.

Most recently, an adjective got veteran NPR newscaster Jean Cochran into difficulty when she said on Valentine's Day that President Bush was heading to Africa to visit the "dark continent."

Almost immediately, a flurry of angry emails and phone calls came into NPR.

"I thought that we had wrested that comment along with 'colored' and other euphemisms for Africans or Afro-Americans," wrote one listener, summing up how others felt. "Could you please report my comments to NPR management? I almost drove off the side of the road to start a protest!!!"

"This is simply an outdated reference as well as being outrageously offensive," wrote another listener, Karrye Y. Braxton.

The copy, which had been approved by an editor, was pulled and Cochran agreed to never use the expression again.

"I had no idea the term would be found offensive," said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. "I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was 'racist and irredeemable,' as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don't know how that could be since I didn't know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It's a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term."

Cochran is correct in one sense. Originially, the term "dark continent" came into use in the 19th century to describe a continent largely unknown and mysterious to Europeans. Explorer Henry M. Stanley used it in his 1878 book, Through the Dark Continent.

In fact, it is still used today, but in context. Because of the dearth of electricity on much of the continent, satellite imaging from outer space depicts much of Africa at night as literally a dark continent. An article in The Economist last July, on how investors view Africa, refers to it as the "dark continent." "With all this concern of offending people, it is important for people to understand why and where the term exists," said Neal Weintraub, an author of four books on investing, who provided NPR The Economist example.

Nonetheless, while it may have been a romantic phrase in the 19th century, it is more commonly thought of as an archaic expression, especially if not used in historical context.

The book, Talking About People, notes that such phrases as "the dark continent," and "darkest Africa" are Eurocentric, ethnocentric and even historically inaccurate. Only 20 percent of the continent is forested. Metaphorically, says the book, Africa is unknown only to those who don't live there.

Despite Cochran's innocent use of the term, "the impact of the description still has racist overtones," said Arlene Morgan, who with Keith Woods is author of Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity. "So journalists today have to consider impact. Surely, the audience had to wonder why she thought the description of dark was accurate or appropriate."

Cochran issued an on-air and online apology four days later at exactly the same time her "dark continent" reference first appeared: "My deepest apologies for using such an antiquated and pejorative term."

Did NPR owe an apology?

After the apology ran, some listeners were infuriated, thinking it unnecessary, claiming that NPR had succumbed to political correctness.

"As much as I believe in racial sensitivity, I draw the line at torturing the language or censoring our use of it to accommodate the hypersensitivities of the ignorant," wrote Don Howe, a corporate trainer in Los Angeles. "NPR has done its mainly informed and well-educated audience a disservice by caving into a grossly misplaced sense of liberal guilt. I only hope you don't apologize the next time someone uses the word 'niggardly'."

Some may recall that in 1999, a white Washington, D.C. city government official resigned after he used the word niggardly in a budget discussion with staffers. While the word means miserly with no racial connotations, some incorrectly assume it derives from a certain word that is definitely out of bounds.

"I think the bottom line is that so many people use code words and phrases to express prejudice- because outright racism can get you fired from many jobs nowadays- that people are understandably suspicious of any turn of phrase which hints at a racial stereotype," Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times told NPR. "So the broadcaster may not be guilty of anything beyond some ignorance in anticipating how her words might sound. But writers and editors have to be a bit more careful about how these phrases sound."

Some word meanings evolve over time and become accepted. Others like "dark continent" retain their power.

"Even when not consciously selected, language that diminishes one group at the expense of others wields great power in naturalizing unequal power relations," Prof. Martin A. Berger, who specializes in gender and race at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told NPR. "It's less useful to talk about 'racist' people, than to see how racialized patterns of thought and speech are structured into our lives."

So should NPR have apologized?

Given the intense listener reaction, it would have been arrogant for NPR to ignore the use of the controversial term. But in not offering any serious explanation for its apology, NPR missed an opportunity for a broader discussion -- on air, online, or both -- about the power of language.


See what others think of NPR's apology

What do you think?

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categories: Language

4:09 - February 27, 2008



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Regarding Ms. Cochran's use of "The Dark Continent" and this ensuing firestorm of words, the charges of racist overtones and insensitivity are absolutely inconsistent with anything having to do with both NPR and Ms. Cochran. The hypersensitivity to this term is strictly a manufactured bias on the part of the protesters and is both unjustified and uncalled for. Ignorance of the meaning of the term on the part of those slighted gives it a racial connotation that is just plain inaccurate. The inference of racial bias sprouts from the racial bias of those protesting that any use of the term "Dark Continent" simply refers to the color of the native inhabitants. The term is as no more antiquated or pejorative as any reference to the New World would be. We as a species must get past taking offense at any reference or perceived reference to differences between us. The color of our skin, eyes, hair, gender or sexuality should make no matter. Unless and until we do that we cannot progress towards true civility. The only thing done wrong here by anybody at NPR was to apologize because in so doing they empower the complainers.

Sent by Ed Kirkpatrick | 12:22 PM ET | 02-28-2008

I only wish the same people that protest so vehemently against a geographical term, would put their energies into some real issues - like another geographical "term" called Iraq.

Furthermore, the more the media panders to the hypersensitive PC crowd, the more their journalism will suffer.

Ms.Cochran, you had nothing to apologize for.

Sent by Nate Grately | 2:33 PM ET | 02-28-2008

"Dark Continent" is not a geographic term describing the dimness and mystery of Africa's jungles. In fact, Africa is not a continent of jungles any more than are South America and Asia. There is nothing dark about Africa's vast expanses of desert or its broad swaths of wide-open savannah. That phrase has nothing to do with the continent's landscape. "Dark continent" is a clearly purjorative term that should be fully relegated to the history books.

I am sure Ms. Cochran meant no harm, but the language she used is clearly racist, and making an apology was the right thing for her to do. A journalist should have known better, and now she does.

Sent by Miranda Haley | 5:29 PM ET | 02-28-2008

Words are symbols. We say something is a "chair," but "chair" is not in itself an object. The word "chair" is a construct we use to denote properties (legs, sit on, etc). Those symbols (words) help us apply meaning and communicate.

"Dark continent" means whatever communities agree upon. Historically, it could have been attached to any geographic region. For some reason, during a time of empire it was applied to a specific sphere of an empire. What does "dark" historically connote? What is implied about Africa? Who has an empire?

The term makes me think of Conrad, but "What's in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet;" (Shakespeare).

I would rather discuss terms like "surge," "inflation," "collateral damage," "smart bomb,"
etc. Who gave the media those terms?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 11:11 PM ET | 02-28-2008

Why doesn't NPR hold a panel discussion about the power of language and the origins of certain words and how language morphs to keep pace with culture, whether for good or bad?

To a certain extent, apologies let the wrongdoer get out of guilt. Rather than apologize, why not confront that guilt and examine why it exists?

Seriously, do it. It would ensure that some good comes out of this little kerfluffle.

Sent by asdf | 11:16 PM ET | 02-28-2008

I happen to work with a man from Ghana. In our discussions I have decided there is a lot of truth to the notion of backwardness in Africa. In Ghana you must build a fairly inpenitrable wall around your home if you don't want to be robbed at automatic weapon point. They have such a high unemployment rate that mechanics helpers make no hourly wage and are compensated by a tip. One does not have a full set of tools, only the basics. Hand tools and not cordless, which we cannot imagine life without now, though they are fairly recent inventions. It seems from reports I have paid attention to over the years that corruption and rule of law are the chief weaknesses of the African continent. Somehow the lack of self rule during colonialism has led to this, or tribalism, or a lot of things all at once. P.S. my friend says he is sure there is not a single police helicopter in the entire country. I hope this is not true.

Sent by John Compton | 11:27 PM ET | 02-28-2008

The irony of NPR, the high priest of PC, being hoisted on a petard of its own making, is too rich. Schadenfreude is the best form of joy. A macaca has come and left you a present.

Sent by Drango | 1:06 AM ET | 02-29-2008

I always wondered about "dark" and handsome kinghts in shining armor. An apology was not necessary but if tendered it did not harm except make a few souls happy.

Sent by Shashi Bellamkonda | 11:34 AM ET | 02-29-2008

If she were male, she would have been fired, just as other broadcasters have been fired for using similar racist or racially-tinged words. Why is Don Imus dumped by his broadcaster, but not Cochran? Is it my bad memory, or is it that all those dumped in the past have been male, not female? NPR needs to take a much more aggressive stand in this case to show it understands views of others and an apology is hardly enough.

Sent by edward | 5:06 PM ET | 02-29-2008

If I am called tall, dark and handsome one more time I'm going to get really, really annoyed.

Sent by Scott | 5:37 PM ET | 02-29-2008

Didn't Busch Gardens in Florida used to refer to the park as the "Dark Continent"? When did we take the phrase and give it predjucial context? And would someone PLEASE send me a list of terms I'm not supposed to use in future? Is Black Humor out too?

Sent by Holly | 6:01 PM ET | 02-29-2008

Cochran is dissembling saying she didn't realize what she said was racially insensitive. Dark Continent and its associated "darkies" is unacceptable in today's society, and amounts to hate speech in my view. Isn't it interesting that broadcasters get in trouble for what they imply, not what they really said.

Howard Cosell lost his job for saying one sports star was a "little monkey," while Jimmy the Greek was dumped after saying the slave culture bred blacks to be big. Even more famously, George Allen was rejected for reelection to the Senate after calling someone Macaca.

NPR needs to take a stand and agree with prevailing public opinion that the days of racial name calling are behind us. It is offensive to look up past references to Black Continent and trying to defend the use of the words by relying on a quote from a British publication like the Economist. This is America, and NPR's ombudsman should belly up to the bar and admit that this is terribly wrong and racist in American society today.

Sent by lawrence | 6:31 PM ET | 02-29-2008

NPR definitely should not be calling Africa "the dark continent." It may sound quaint and historical, but it is racist and demeaning. The term comes from -- and still evokes -- slavery days.

Sent by Megan | 9:43 PM ET | 02-29-2008

Go ahead and add "Dark Continent" to the stylebook list of forbidden words (see also "niggardly"). As the public becomes dumber, simply adapt accordingly and try not to think about it too much. If there is any doubt, just call whatever the "[blank] of Peace."

Sent by Oh no I didn't | 9:54 PM ET | 02-29-2008

I can understand concerns about all things the term dark signifies. Considering all tragic things happening in many African countries, however, one can find the phrase "dark continent" to be apt.

Sent by Sue | 10:02 PM ET | 02-29-2008

The fact that NPR's reporter and editors saw nothing wrong with the term "dark continent" makes me wonder about the preconceptions that color their reporting on Africa in general. Why wasn't Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, the Africa correspondent, assigned to cover the trip? She would have done a much better job.
There is one thing NPR can do to prevent such mistakes: make a commitment to diversity among their reporters. I'm not just talking about race and ethnicity. I mean gender and economic diversity as well.

Sent by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs | 12:35 AM ET | 03-01-2008

"In Ghana you must build a fairly inpenitrable wall around your home if you don't want to be robbed at automatic weapon point. "

Yeah, I've heard the Smoky Mountains, the South Bronx, and the Pentagon are like that too.

Sent by ChoCho | 12:52 AM ET | 03-01-2008

I also heard the term and was surprised. I took it to be antiquated and not a fitting description. The term carries with it an age of empire and all of the wrongs and condescension connected to those times. My guess is that while it first or primarily stemmed from the unknown nature of the continent, the phrase became tied to race as well.

Using the term was unwise (and I am surprised it did not get caught in the process of editing), but acknowledging that some people find it offensive is not wrong, either.

However, as Ms. Shepard says, NPR could have done much to enlighten listeners (and staff) by discussing the phrase and its history and what it means to various people today.

(As for the semi-anonymous "Edward," and his comment above: Don Imus' words were patently offensive in the extreme, and on a greater scale than a term with a dubious history. The gender of the commentator/reporter has nothing to do with the aftermath.)

Sent by Dan Hortsch | 7:09 PM ET | 03-01-2008

The key points about PC are (1) whether the words used were shocking and offensive to somebody and (2) whether that somebody is in a relatively powerless position compared with the user of the words. Although the derivation of "dark continent" might be harmless (although I'm not convinced of that), you can't escape the fact that the notion of white/good vs black/bad is part of our history and can tinge otherwise innocent-sounding phrases. I once critiqued a coworker's proposal by saying his presentation "petered out at the end." I had no idea what a sexist phrase this was until another (female) coworker told me. So mistakes can be made. Apologies can be appropriate. It seems to me that if NPR erred at all, it was in not taking the opportunity to explore the origin and connotations of the term "dark continent."

Sent by B. Braunlich | 7:25 PM ET | 03-01-2008

I would have expected NPR reporters, especially veteran reporters, to know enough about history and language so as not to be tripped up by usage of dubious meaning or intent. I pine for the days when journalists actually knew about literature, history, economics, and art rather than simply the mechanics of how to do a Podcast or video recording while taking notes.

Sent by jon komatsu | 7:31 PM ET | 03-01-2008

After reading some of these comments, all I can add after my comment at the top is this quote from Bronson Alcott. "To be ignorant of one's ignorance is the malady of the ignorant."

Sent by Ed Kirkpatrick | 11:08 PM ET | 03-01-2008

No apology needed. Totally silly. Let's not let ignorant and/or overly sensitive people shut down debate and discussion. Don't pander to those folks or fuel them in any way. It's a nasty form of censorship, albeit indirect.

Do you ask corporations and politicians what adjectives you should use to describe them? I sure hope not.

Sent by Alice Jonsson | 9:08 AM ET | 03-02-2008

Advice to all broadcasters and writers (or DC City employees) for the future: You could lose your job for using words your audience is too stupid to understand.
And it will only get more worser.

Sent by Rich Johnson | 12:47 PM ET | 03-02-2008

I wonder whether there is a correlation between (1) the likelihood that a person regards the phrase "Dark Continent" as obviously racist and (2) the likelihood that the same person reads books containing vocabulary from a range of historical periods. Just guessing, I bet the correlation exists and is inverse.

Sent by Milan Starling | 6:56 PM ET | 03-02-2008

I can't wait until a reporter refers to Canada as "The Great White North."

Then we'll see some protest, eh?

Sent by Chris | 8:27 AM ET | 03-03-2008

I believe, given the furor, that an explanation was called for, but not an apology.

Sent by Ned Smith | 9:41 AM ET | 03-03-2008

Yes, the phrase was antiquated; no, it wasn't racist. It was a poor choice on the newscaster's part; however, all the hyperventilating makes us look silly and reinforces the largely false notion that we have a discernable liberal bias.

Sent by Phil | 9:57 AM ET | 03-03-2008

I was driving to work during the original comment, and I was absolutely shocked. The phrase is racist, and I cannot believe that the newscaster did not have any inkling that this was the case. I was also listening during the apology, which I thought could have been a little stronger. "I'm sorry if I offended anyone" is not the appropriate response when you say something blantantly rascist on the radio. The appropriate response is "I'm sorry I said something offensive."

Sent by Caren | 11:56 AM ET | 03-03-2008

What is offensive is the image and meaning the phrase conjures up. Like other words or phrases, it is imbued with larger ideas about relations Europeans and Africans and about race relations in the States. Going further, as noted in the article and by others writing comments, the phrase isn't even geographically accurate which to me says that it was never meant to describe the continent in reality, but rather to describe Europeans impressions of the continent. The observations included tidbits like the fact that Africans were seen by Europeans as ignorant, slow, faithless, etc. This would not be a problem, if history did not end up with Europeans essentially being the sole arbiters of power and being able to create and circulate the knowledge available about Africa and Africans. Gawker also makes a good point about how the phrase, "the dark continent," points to larger ideas about self vs. the other, which is an important observation.

The issue to me is a lack of overall education about the insinuations in calling Africa, "the dark continent." I find it baffling that no one editing the story or Cochran herself realized the inherent, problematic, racializing nature of this particular phrase.

Sent by aisha | 12:18 PM ET | 03-03-2008

A question and a comment.

The question: Did an editor or producer flag "the dark contenient" phrase and question it?

The comment: I can see all sides of this argument, and think they are each valid in some way. Yes, journalists must resist the too-prevalent pressures put on us to use euphemistic language or jargon. Yes, we should avoid cliches (from a writing perspective) and stereotypes of racial groups, which damage the political and cultural debate.

But as I listen to and read about all the turmoil in African countries, beginning in my consciousness with the Rowandan genocide and on through to today's problems with widespread war, war-related rape, genocides, HIV/Aids, political unrest and killings, the phrase "dark contenient" struck a certain chord in me.

For many people living in some African countries, it is a truly dark time, meaning a time of great uncertainty when it's impossible to see what happen next and difficult to choose the path out of suffering.

Tonia Moxley

Sent by Tonia | 12:38 PM ET | 03-03-2008

I don't think Cochran chose the phrase for any other reason than that she wanted a synonym for Africa.

To put it very simply, "dark continent" is a poor one, with too many negative connotations (certainly not all of them racist) to hope to balance the geographic one she cites.

That our President would be making a trip to an antiquated concept of Africa in any sense is very discouraging: that's what I responded to when I heard the story. This isn't a phrase one should be fired for; I do think it's a phrase that should be set aside.

Sent by Nathan | 1:06 PM ET | 03-03-2008

I understand, or at least have read, that, like "niggardly", "the pot calling the kettle black" is another expression that has no racial connection in its origin but is thought to bear racial connotations by some people unaware of the origin. The origin of course is that with cooking methods predating electric and gas ranges, cooking pots and kettles would both usually be strongly blackened by soot from the cooking fire.

Sent by El Christador | 2:20 PM ET | 03-03-2008

I grew up in the 1950s Midwest, learning in grade school about The Dark Continent at a time when society was frankly far more permissive toward overtly racist behavior than it is now. That continent was dark to me because it was intriguing, mysterious, and even magical, as it still is in many ways. It would have astonished me to hear described as racist a term that connoted in purely positive ways the most fascinating frontier the world still offered. The ultra-PC reaction is absurd.

Sent by Rick Lewis | 2:57 PM ET | 03-03-2008

Ridiculous. No! No apologies.

My greatest fear is becoming a reality; As the world gets stupid and prideful and more populated, the intelligencia is seemingly becoming the minority. We're being taught to keep our mouths shut for fear of offending some group.

Political correctness coupled with ignorance is the biggest threat to freedom of expression I see today. What happens when the ratio of the non-educated becomes 100 to 1?

Will we begin apologizing for the term "niggardly" because some person will, while remaining ignorant as to what it *really* means, will take their anger and will want to fight someone over it.

The solution here is simple: Let the ignorance speak for itself. If someone takes something on their assumptive face value and gets angry, fine. Let their ignorance and pridefulness keep them angry because that's what it boils down to.

It's their anger. Theirs. Let them have it. It's based in _their_ world view which is not mine.

Personally, before I get angry with a person over anything, especially words, I ask for clarification or search for the non-offensive answer first. But this is because I believe in the inherent goodness of people; not that some group is "out to get me."

Sent by Samsara | 12:58 AM ET | 03-04-2008

I support the right of people to say whatever they want. It is called the First Amendment.

I am curious, could the people who do not find "dark content" offensive give a few examples of terms that they do find offensive (other than the apology)?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 6:52 PM ET | 03-04-2008

I'm really taken aback by how many people are commenting here that this is a case of NPR bowing to Political Correctness, rather than wondering how an editor at NPR and a newscaster could have thought nothing offensive or pejorative about the phrase "Dark Continent."

I think reasonable people can disagree about whether "dark continent" is a racist appellation for Africa, but it's difficult to get around the term's relationship to colonial discourses of Africa being backward and unenlightened.

I believe that neither the editors nor Cochran meant any offense, but that's hardly an excuse in a business that trades in words. I also believe that Cochran's defense that she thought the term referred to the darkness of "the African jungle" is an honest one, but this only makes matters worse because it demonstrates her lack of reflection on the term.

Africa is not a jungle, and the notion that the entire continent is characterized by an impenetrable and dark jungle is a notion directly inherited from colonialism.

It was a dumb thing to say, and an apology was warranted. So why all the fuss? Why all the people rushing to defend NPR's use of a term in ignorance?

Sent by Brian H. | 11:30 AM ET | 03-05-2008

Intent and Impact. it matters little what the person meant or intended to say. it is the impact it makes on the listener. That NPR took the time to listen to the complaints realized that the had offended a large number of people apologized as well as explained themselves speaks highly of NPR. That some people were offended by NPR apologizing, for offending people I find quite amusing. Perhaps they should apologize for apologizing

Sent by The George R Bauer II | 1:23 PM ET | 03-05-2008

As an someone born in America with family in Africa, I find it sad that media professionals in America would not immediately recognize a term like "the Dark Continent" as language rooted in the colonial period and loaded with all of its ugly Eurocentric values. I think that most Americans can understand why some Native Americans would not like to be referred to as Indians or some Asian people would not like to be referred to as oriental. All of this language is outdated and biased if not racist and suggest that the world and its people been seen through a European lens. I applaud NPR for the correction. This is not about political correctness but about having contemporary global perspective and an educated and informed command of language. Hopefully in the future all of NPRs audience will be considered before going on air.

Sent by Keith | 4:17 AM ET | 03-24-2008

The comment was not racist in any manner. The term "Dark Continent" was used for many years to describe an UNEXPLORED continent.

Those who are dark... claim racist at every turn whether justified or not.

Sent by David Lawson | 1:12 PM ET | 03-27-2008

I was shocked to see some argue since Africa has social and economic problems, it deserve the label "dark continent". I want to make them feel a bit sensitive. What if an African American or Native American called a state, a country or a continent the "white devil place" and try to justify it by saying most atrocities in the world have been committed by white people so it is deserving or at least it aptly describes the history of white people. For me, it would be as offensive. So, it is not political correctness at play here.

Sent by King T | 7:42 AM ET | 04-05-2008

What ever happened to "sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you",one of the first things a child learns about the nonimportance of name calling? I don`t believe an apology is necessary because this is an old phrase with a totally different context and definitely not intended as name calling.Whoever feels it was a derogatory statement has become as thin skinned as a "Raghead" wanting to kill over a cartoon.There,put that in your pipe...Evidently they are not paying attention to important issues like renaming schoolyard "Monkey Bars" or the game "Black Jack".They better get going,because they are way behind the "Politically Inept".

Sent by Tim C. | 8:39 PM ET | 04-12-2008


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Alicia Shepard

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