3 teachable moments for media students from the Gov. Ralph Northam “blackface” controversy

In case you missed it, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spent the weekend under pressure to resign after his association with a racist photo during medical school came to light. Northam, a Democrat, had a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page with a person wearing a KKK hood and robe and another other in blackface:


Follow-up stories also found that while at VMI, Northam had the nickname “Coonman,” which has racist overtones, to say the least. Northam has stated he will not resign, even as pretty much everyone else on the planet is telling him he has no choice.

In terms of “teachable moments,” we could easily list about 1,023,324 of them starting with “don’t be a racist idiot.” However, since this is a journalism-based blog, let’s stick to three items related to media concerns:

Student media leaves a long trail: When Brett Kavanaugh was up for his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, we talked about this issue at length, but it bears repeating here: Student media can be eternal. In that earlier post, we cited at least a half-dozen cases in which politicians, jurists and others had something they wrote as an under-informed undergrad come back to haunt them. What makes this case interesting is that this was from Northam’s days in medical school, which pushes his age much further into adulthood when his page hit the press.

Sure, it might seem cute to put something in press that you find to be “funny” at the time, like a drinking quote, a puffery-based quote about your virility or something else that would make you wince later, but consequences do emerge. Consider this “hysterical” moment from a college paper and its senior sendoff columns:


I never was a huge fan of drop caps, but this made them worse…

I suppose, if you were inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt, you could argue that this was a random lottery of accidental ordering, but five other senior sendoff columns on the subsequent page had drop caps that spelled out “PENIS.” I can’t recall what happened to the students in this case, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. It also isn’t great that this happened in the internet age, so I’m sure I’m not the only person with this photo.

As both media practitioners and people who plan to live a fruitful life past the age of 22, take a good, hard look at what you publish. The association you have with those choices doesn’t seem like it ever really goes away.


Before you open your mouth, figure out what you should say: Public relations and crisis communication experts get an unfair bad rap in many cases. The whole “Covington Catholic MAGA kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation had a contingency of people complaining that at least one of the kids involved hired RunSwitch PR, a firm linked to heavy hitters in the Republican Party, including Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney. The argument was that the kids knew they were wrong, racist and evil, so the PR firm came in to soften their image and “spin” this whole thing for them.

I’m not in any position to comment on that particular case, because I honestly don’t know what happened there in regard to the firm or the kids. I can tell you that people often argue that hiring a PR firm makes you look slimy, in the way that demanding a lawyer when you get accused of a crime makes you look guilty. I’ll disagree on that point because this is clearly a case where some quality public relations practitioners and crisis communication experts could have made a big difference in a positive and clarifying way.

PR experts will tell you that before you make a public statement, you need to know what you want to say. In addition, you need to have a handle on ALL the facts of the case before you take a stand. This is akin to the news rule that you need to report before you publish. Regardless of what happens next, that approach makes sense, and a good PR firm would have told Northam this. It also would have kept him away from the press until he knew what the heck was happening with this situation and what he wanted to say.

Sure, you can argue that we might not know the truth about the situation if Northam had time to “shape his message,” but how much do we actually know now? At first it was, “I’m very sorry I did this” and then it was, “I’m not saying which of these racist figures was me,” and then it was “I don’t think that was me in the photo,” and now it’s “I never put that photo on my page.” We’re about 10 seconds away from him doing a press conference run by Shaggy.

If Northam had taken a couple hours, met with a good group of PR practitioners, he could have formed the best possible message for himself going forward. Even if that message ended up being, “I was a racist chucklehead and I’m sorry,” at least it would have been a single message from a single voice that allowed him and the rest of Virginia to move forward.

Trust, but verify: The original story about the yearbook page broke on a website called Big League Politics, a right-wing website with ties to Breitbart News and other similarly inclined publications: 

Virginia Democrat governor Ralph Northam posed for a blackface photograph.

Big League Politics has obtained photos from Northam’s time at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, from which he graduated in 1984.

Northam and a friend were photographed together — one in blackface, one in Klan robes.

Two things come to mind upon seeing this:

  1. The publication clearly has a conservative viewpoint, so there’s always a risk that simply taking the negative information it published about a Democrat as gospel and running with it could lead to the spread of misinformation.
  2. The publication doesn’t cite a source to explain HOW it verified that Northam was in that photo, a charge that Northam now denies (while copping to something he somehow thinks is better, namely using shoe polish to “darken” himself as part of a Michael Jackson contest).

This is a case where the journalistic rule of “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out” applies. In other words, don’t ignore the story, but do find out for yourself if it’s true before you publish anything. CBS noted its efforts in this regard:

A reporter from CBS News affiliate News 3, Brendan Ponton, went to the Eastern Virginia Medical School library in Norfolk Friday afternoon and found the page on which the photo appears.

The Washington Post made a similar notation in its story:

The Washington Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook by viewing it in the medical school library in Norfolk.

You will also notice the nuances in the description these outlets use in regard to the photo. While BLP says Northam is in the photo, the others make it clearer that it appeared on his page, but Northam denies it’s him and no one can prove that it is at this point.

When it comes to something like this, it’s always important to make sure you have your facts straight and that you can demonstrate how you verified the information.

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