Weighing In Humility

How much is an apology worth? In journalism, where reporters and news-bringers are supposed to be providing accurate information on a public scale, an apology might seem like an admittance that the entire company has flawed reporting. This would then logically lead to bad business which is something that all companies would rather avoid.

However, it seems that apologies and humility in journalism actually credit the journalist with more reliability than the never-wrong journalists have. Firstly, as explained in The Elements of Journalism, humility leads to more accurate reporting because a humble journalist will take the time to research each story instead of immediately publishing what he/she thinks is right (as in the case with the report on the Pentecostal prayer revival; 101).

Humility also leads reporters to the realization that they are not omniscient. Good journalists then use this realization to spark their curiosity and research their stories more thoroughly before publishing them. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, stated in a phone interview that for her, “it’s that sense of humility that . . . drives the best journalists to question themselves and work harder and really try to round out the story.” No one can properly argue against doing more research in order to more thoroughly verify a story.

Unfortunately, not every reporter or journalist has a spotless record of verified stories. There are, however, a number of journalists who have taken the opportunity to humbly apologize for offensive and/or misrepresentative statements. Almost five years ago, Don Imus made one of these offensive statements on his morning show while discussing a college-level women’s basketball game. In his commentary on the aggressiveness of the primarily black team, he referred to the players from Rutgers as “nappy-headed hoes.” The racially denigrating term understandably stirred up a lot of offense from the Rutgers team and the public at large. Soon after, Imus presented a verbal apology for his poor choice of words, which ironically was precipitated by the other commentator’s first using the word “ho” to describe the girls; as far as I know, no apology was issued by the other commentator. Although Imus lost his job in the proceeding weeks, I personally have a greater respect for him than I would have had he not apologized. This situations truly shows how damaging a lack of humility and respect can be in journalism.

In more recent news, another apology was issued from reporters for poorly calculated news reports. MSNBC negatively highlighted the Romney campaign (sparked by a blog comment) by connecting Romney’s using the phrase “Keep America American” to the Ku Klux Klan’s slogan “Keep America American.” They issued an apology the same day to the Romney campaign. The original report was comprised of fact stating that a blog source published the connection. The apology was not for lack of fact, but instead for “lack of judgment.” The lack of judgment was publishing  a story with clear insinuations that Romney was a KKK member/supporter, which is not based on fact. Humility in this situation would have caused the reporter to question whether or not Romney was actually affiliated with the KKK. Further research would have provided a more grounded base for the story, thus saving MSNBC’s journalistic integrity.

Even so, I would prefer to hear a few apologies every now and again from journalists because that indicates that their other pieces have been truthful to the best of their knowledge. The fact that they have enough dignity to apologize for a mistake tells me that they have previously not made similar mistakes leading me to trust in their stories more often. Humility, therefore, is more influential in the long run than arrogance.

Carli Hanson

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