For your consideration: Apologies.
It was the third episode in this list that got me thinking about the topic. But here are three moments in my podcast listening that struck me as interesting:
- This American Life – “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – After using a whole hour to explore one reporter’s experience in China visiting an Apple factory, This American Life spends a full episode retracting its coverage and apologize. (3/16/2012)
- Startup, “We Made a Mistake” – After slipping up by failing to inform one interviewee that they were being interviewed for a commerical, Startup did a whole episode exploring what happened. (12/9/2014)
- TL;DR – “Quiet, Wadhwa” – After spending a whole episode (approx 20 minutes) on how a prominent male spokesperson on women in tech is resented by some women in tech, WNYC pulled the episode because the subject of the story had not been given the opportunity to comment on the story. (2/19/2015)
Other examples of mistakes and apologies from the last few years:
- The Newsroom – The entire second season of the Aaron Sorkin show was about a massive error and a retracted episode of the show.
- Brian Williams – Williams is on forced hiatus right now as his exaggerations about his experiences in Iraq have caught up with him.
- Bill O’Reilly – After excoriating Brian Williams for his errors, O’Reilly is finding himself under fire for similar mistakes in his reporting.
It all started with Dan Rather, to my mind. Rather’s downfall over the fraudulent Killian documents occurred in the early days of web 2.0 (2004), when crowd-sourcing was possible and the news media in general was just starting to understand what a powerful fact-checking engine the mob is (many eyeballs make shallow bugs). Since then, news media have had to answer errors in ever-faster cycles, and address them more thoroughly.
But I’m interested here in the genre of the apology episode. I like to imagine that the apology episodes I’m pointing to spring from a couple factors:
First, podcasts are intimate experiences that feel more like conversations than like stage shows. A podcaster in your ear feels identical to hearing a telephone call. So when these intimate acquaintances let us down, it feels more personal. We expect a personal apology.
Second, with social media, the need for public apology rises dramatically — before social media, one angry person (like, say, the soldier who posted on Brian Williams’ Facebook Page that he didn’t remember Williams being there) now has the ability to be public immediately, and the rumor spreads at the same speed it would in a crowd, but now that crowd is the whole world.
Third, they create an honest atmosphere in which trust can be re-built. The newscaster who shies away from blame makes things worse, not better, for themselves.
I’m curious about this, and have a few questions to think about as the idea continues to evolve for me.
- Are apologies of this size and frequency new? I know there are and have always been retraction columns, and occasionally stories will make big news for the story itself (the Sokal affair comes to mind), but the character of these feels different to me.
- Does the heightened awareness among media consumers about how media is made help or hurt these apologies? In other words, are we more forgiving now that we’re all becoming media producer/consumers?
- Is there a lower bar for newscasters (or podcasters) to regain the trust of the listeners than there was before? If media makers own their mistakes quickly and try to address them ethically (as in the episodes at the top of the page), does this make it easier for them to regain the public’s trust?