How journalists bungle apologies: They keep talking

Boston University's Daily Free Press published an April Fools' article about "Seven frat dwarves" who "gangbanged a female Boston University student in an Allston Village cabin." It then goofed up what should have been a straightforward apology. Its mea culpa starts strong, then goes off the rails with this sentence: "However, let us say this. Let us not disintegrate into demonizing one another over such a mistake."

No, no, demonizing one another over such a mistake is exactly what the editorial, which takes about 400 words too long, makes necessary! In fact, any apology longer than two words is an invitation to grab a Ouija board and provoke so great a haunting that no one will ever want to live in your house again.

Especially if you issue three apologies: one from the paper's staff, one from the board of directors (which says it asked the editor to resign), one from that editor. Plus: expressions of disappointment from the student senate and a letter from the inter-fraternity council.

Here is how you apologize: "I'm sorry." Maybe "We're sorry." If your apology includes the words "if," "but," or especially "however" it is not an apology. It's a justification, which is not the same thing.

Which leads naturally to Geraldo Rivera, whose most recent nonapology, this time to the parents of Trayvon Martin for insisting that their child's choice of sweatshirt was responsible for his death, wasn't quite as spectacular as last Tuesday's nonapology, in which he apologized "to anyone offended by what one prominent black conservative called my ‘very practical and potentially life-saving campaign urging black and Hispanic parents not to let their children go around wearing hoodies." Still, he did tell them he was sorry if he "added to your misery," which gets him closer.

Media writer Joe Pompeo detected a "new, apologetic tone" in James Murdoch's resignation from BSkyB, which was announced today. "I am aware that my role as Chairman could become a lightning rod for BSkyB and I believe that my resignation will help to ensure that there is no false conflation with events at a separate organisation,” Murdoch said in a statement. That may be as good as we're going to get from this guy (I'm sorry that others may incorrectly tar this institution with actions I maintain were not my fault at another institution is how the reasoning goes here.)

Devon Edwards wrote a stellar apology after Onward State falsely reported Joe Paterno's death: He took the blame, stepped down as managing editor and even managed to take a higher-level view without casting the blame elsewhere: "In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm," he wrote. "All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility."

This masterpiece of an apology was recently tainted when Onward State was forced to apologize for its April Fools' gag: Tweeting a false report about Edwards' death. The apology was right on, though.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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