How do news organizations respond when they screw up?
I’m not talking about a we-misspelled-someone’s-name level of screw-up, the sort of mistake that can be addressed with a quick edit and a correction. I’m talking about a big screw-up — the kind that makes readers raise fundamental doubts about an outlet and how they do their work.
“That 8-year-old heroin addict we wrote about, the story that won the Pulitzer? Yeah, he’s made up.”
“That time I was riding in a helicopter and it got hit by Iraqi gunfire? I double-checked and actually, it was some other helicopter.”
“That writer of ours who reported from all those places and interviewed all those people? Well, it turns out he didn’t.”
Those take more than a correction, more than a “we regret the error” — they require a level of self-flagellation that seems commensurate with the journalistic crime. When news organizations construct this sort of epic apology, what are they trying to accomplish, and how are they trying to accomplish it?
That’s the question behind an interesting new paper by Erica Salkin and Kevin Grieves, both of Whitworth University. It’s titled “The ‘Major Mea Culpa’: Journalistic Discursive Techniques When Professional Norms are Broken,” and it’s in Journalism Studies.
The “corrections statement” is sufficient for media organizations to address small mistakes. When larger missteps occur, however, more substantive work is needed not only to correct the record, but also to protect the organization’s claim to an authentic journalistic identity.
This study analyzes 30 of what it terms “major mea culpa” statements to explore how media organizations talk about their significant professional errors and the tools they use to maintain their journalistic identities when such errors occur.
Using content analysis to explore the major themes of journalistic process and journalistic principle, this study concludes that the discursive techniques central to “major mea culpas” seek to assert and affirm journalistic identity when actions may suggest that an organization no longer reflects the ideals of the profession.
Salkin and Grieves went digging through the ProQuest archives in search of these apologies, the sort that a newsroom produces when their work “clearly violate[s] professional journalistic norms.” The 30 they selected came packaged for readers in a variety of formats — as editorials, expanded editor’s notes, commentary, or straight news reporting — but they were all “substantive pieces written or produced by a media organization that committed an alleged infraction about the alleged infraction.”
Their basic finding is that these apologies try to reclaim a sense of journalistic authority for the organization — and that they do so by foregrounding elements of journalistic process and purpose that otherwise go unspoken or de-emphasized. Here are some of the themes they identified — with the obvious caveat that not all apologies will feature all of these elements.
They explicitly acknowledge a loss of reader trust.
Trust is the currency of the realm in journalism, something critical to both publisher and reader. But it’s rarely something a news organization speaks about explicitly. News stories don’t come with a lengthy “Why You Should Believe This Article” section at the top. The publisher’s brand and the reader’s prior experience with it do the heavy lifting there.
But these apologies address reader trust head-on, describing it as something both earned (by the publisher) and given (by the reader). They’re littered with phrases like “profound betrayal of trust” and “an abrogation of trust” and “we have broken our trust.” Sometimes, the trust being broken is between reporter and editor, but most often, it’s between newsroom and reader.
Here’s how The Tyler Morning Telegraph put it after a doozy: It ran a photo of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol with a caption describing the attackers as “members of antifa dressed as supporters of President Donald Trump.”
Your trust with us cannot be repaired overnight, but we hope that by explaining what we know and what we’re doing, we can eventually earn that trust back.
And here’s the Cape Cod Times, after it discovered one of its reporters had been making up sources for years:
We needed to share these details, as uncomfortable as they are, because we are more than a private company dealing with a personnel issue — we are a newspaper and we have broken our trust with you. We deeply regret this happened and extend our personal apology to you.
Trust is, of course, a core issue for journalism as a profession, and some argue that making matters of trust more explicit and visible could help — see The Trust Project, for example. It probably shouldn’t take a major ethical scandal to discuss it with your readers.
They note their failure to meet high standards — readers’ and their own.
It’s one thing to disappoint your readers — publishers also want you to know they’ve disappointed themselves, too. The scale of that self-disappointment emphasizes how high their usual standards are.
Here’s Der Spiegel after discovering one of their longtime reporters, Claas Relotius, was “neither a reporter nor a journalist. Rather, he produces beautifully narrated fiction.”
The Relotius case marks a low point in the 70-year history of DER SPIEGEL. We have fallen well short of the goals that we set for ourselves, we have radically undermined our own standards and long-established values have been violated — and we must still determine how often and in what ways.
Salkin and Grieves note that this theme of disappointment was particularly frequent in news organizations’ apologies for their past coverage of race. The Kansas City Star acknowledged it has “too often failed to serve” Black communities. Salkin and Grieves write that this rhetorical mode
…also allows media organizations to justify their place within the boundaries. Acknowledging the failure to meet the expectations held by audiences establishes a deep familiarity with the norms of the field of journalism. It allows the media organization to show that it knows where the correct side of the line is by recognizing when it has landed on the wrong side.
They go above and beyond in terms of research, process, and detail.
Lots of work goes into the creation of a news story, and traditional news standards hide almost all of it. You quote the people you talked to, not the ones who didn’t return your calls. You write about the documents you have, not the ones still tied up in a FOIA appeal.
That changes in a grand apology. These pieces want you to see the work that went into it — the ritual of cleansing that illustrates how big an aberration this mistake was. The New York Times’ Jayson Blair deep-dive arrived with seven bylines and 7,262 words; they wanted you to know their reporting
…included more than 150 interviews with subjects of Mr. Blair’s articles and people who worked with him; interviews with Times officials familiar with travel, telephone and other business records; an examination of other records including e-mail messages provided by colleagues trying to correct the record or shed light on Mr. Blair’s activities; and a review of reports from competing news organizations.
It’s a way for a newsroom to reclaim its journalistic authority by showing the rigor with which it investigates a violation of it. If talk of a “profound betrayal of trust” is the tell, the emphasis on process and detail is the show.
The language of investigation comes to the fore: facts are “independently corroborated,” “thousands of pages” are reviewed. In pieces written by top editors, the first person voice joins (or replaces) standard journalistic distance — or else there’s a journalistic “we” who is disappointed or sorry.
The value of transparency gets invoked often. Here’s the Miami Herald apologizing for running anti-Semitic content in Spanish:
Transparency is a core operating value of journalism. Our news organization itself is an institution in our community, and we should hold ourselves to the standards of transparency that we expect of the institutions we cover.
The message behind these rhetorical moves is: We screwed up. But in telling you about it, we’re going to show you all the parts of the process we usually skip over, in the hopes that you might trust us again.
Given the many thousands of stories they produce every day, even the most esteemed news organizations are going to screw up now and then. And once in a while, they’ll screw up in a big, big way — enough to require explaining their mistake at length.
Salkin and Grieves’ paper is a good examination of the rhetorical tools newsrooms use to talk about those screw-ups. They talk explicitly about reader trust and how it gets earned and lost. They lay out their ethical standards and how they fell short of them. They take opaque newsroom processes and make them transparent. And they show their work, detailing all of the reporting, all of the sources, and all of the work that went into this act of self-criticism.
Media organizations build credibility vis-à-vis their audiences by emphasizing adherence to common journalistic values, and audiences come to expect adherence to those standards. As demonstrated in this analysis, the organizations acknowledged how they failed to live up to these expectations held by the audiences of their work. The organizations applied journalistic practice and process to reveal how missteps occurred, why they occurred (to the extent that such knowledge was discoverable) and how they could be prevented.
Those are all great practices — journalism on its best behavior. What if it didn’t take a monumental screw-up for newsrooms to bring them to the foreground?