Outlet promises to ‘do better in the future’, admitting that it seldom treated Māori fairly

Stuff apology for its treatment of Māori follows investigation by 20 of its journalists. Photograph: Michael Craig/AP

New Zealand media giant Stuff has issued a public apology for its portrayal of Māori it says has ranged from blinkered to racist, from its first editions until now.

Its mea culpa follows an investigation by 20 of its journalists into its journalism throughout its history.

“The media often talks about its role in holding the powerful to account. That includes ourselves,” tweeted Stuff chief executive, Sinead Boucher, who in May bought the company for $1 from Australia’s Nine Entertainment.

Boucher said this was not an exercise in political correctness or about being “woke” but imperative for the company “to be a trusted partner for tangata whenua [people of the land] for generations to come”.

The monocultural nature of Stuff’s journalism meant it was seldom fair to Māori, Stuff’s editorial director, Mark Stevens, said in an editorial: “Our coverage of Māori issues over the last 160 years ranged from racist to blinkered.”

A banner headline – No matou te he [We are sorry] – appeared on its website and front page of its daily newspapers which includes The Dominion Post in Wellington and The Press in Christchurch, the second and third-highest circulation dailies.

The race relations commissioner, Meng Foon, called Stuff’s apology “courageous” and a “unique moment”.

Stuff’s reports meant thousands of New Zealanders were seeing for the first time how media reports distorted, or negatively shaped, Pākehā views of Māori, Foon said.

“I will be asking other media to look at what Stuff is doing. All traditional media and social media companies have obligations and responsibilities to mitigate against racism.”

NZME, owner of numerous radio stations and news titles including the New Zealand Herald, has been open about challenges in reporting on issues facing Māori, managing editor Shayne Currie said. This included an article which explored the Herald’s failure to properly examine how racism plays a role in the organisation.

It has since appointed a head of diversity and partnered with Māori Television to share content and development opportunities. “While we have been open regarding the challenges we are facing and accepted criticism … there’s a lot more for us to do,” Currie said.

Television New Zealand management didn’t have an immediate response to Stuff’s investigation but a spokeswoman said it was working on a “Rautaki[strategy] Māori which will underpin how we reflect Māori perspectives, language and culture”.

Foon said a lack of knowledge about the country’s colonial history had hamstrung Māori-Pākehā race relations and he was pleased the government has mandated the teaching of Aotearoa’s history in schools from 2022.

Media commentator Dr Gavin Ellis applauded Stuff’s initiative. Retrospection and introspection was healthy, if uncommon in the media, said Ellis, a former editor in chief of the New Zealand Herald.

“However, they need to be seen as learning experiences and not as self-flagellation.

“Journalism is practiced in the historical context of the time and we should not see our journalistic forebears as monsters out of step with their society,” Ellis said.

Ellis said Stuff’s investigation would help all journalists turn a new page: “This comprehensive investigation and bi-lingual apology made me sad for the many misdeeds but proud that these journalists have held themselves to account and committed to a different future.”

Stuff’s project, Tā Mātou Pono, Our Truth, examined all digital and all print publications as well as letters to the editor.

It found its outlets had “been racist, contributed to stigma, marginalisation and stereotypes against Māori”.

In the 1800s there were references to an “inferior race” but Stuff’s reporting has marginalised Māori this century too and treated them as “other”.

“Our language often split New Zealand into two – Kiwis and Māori … us and them,” Stevens said.

The company said Stuff, which has begun to translate its stories into te reoMāori, was planning a second part to the investigation which will “focus on Aotearoa and how our racist past has made us who we are today”.

There has long been criticism that schoolchildren are not taught a balanced or thorough history of their country.

The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to provide a legal process by which Māori claims of breaches of the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, could be investigated and findings contribute to the resolution of outstanding issues between Māori and the Crown.