Apology culture erodes institutions

Please note that I do not have the authority to speak on behalf of the editorial staff. The following piece reflects my own opinions, just as every opinion article has always reflected the views of the writer and not the Echo. At times I present undisclosed or privileged information, not to abuse the standing of my position, but to bring an important viewpoint to current conversations.

Over the past year, critics of the Echo have fostered an apology culture. This culture expects that the Echo respond to any self-justified offense with a correction or public apology. If an opinion piece is somehow perceived as offensive, an apology is expected. If newspaper content does not match up with desired expectations, an apology is expected. For better or for worse, the culture favors student comfort over institutional strength. Contrary to this expectation, students and staff have no right to an apology, and there should be no expectation that someone inherently deserves one just because they feel wronged by the Echo.

It is important to acknowledge that my language may seem coded, but it is not. Unfortunately, most discussions over “student comfort” and likely discussions over an “apology culture” are lumped into a battle over political correctness. Since criticisms of PC culture are often themselves coded language for discrimination and bigotry, it is important to emphasize that the concept of an “apology culture” is not a code for decrying political correctness; rather, it deals exclusively with the relationship between the institution of the Echo and the greater Colby community.

The expectation of apology is not inherently unreasonable. Apologies are an effective social tool and are particularly necessary for institutions which represent or govern a group. In this sense, we should expect apologies from the Administration when they err and/or harm the community. However, this expectation is fuzzy when it comes to independent groups like the Echo.

Unlike the Administration, the Echo is an independent, student run newspaper. Unlike other groups on campus, the Echo follows a precedented set of rules that helps to consistently run its institution. These rules have been developing since the paper’s founding in 1877 by learning from its own experiences, mentors, and the examples of other papers. Our decisions are not and should not be made without an express review of our institutional protocol.

The Echo does not apologize on behalf of Opinions pieces, as the opinions do not reflect the views of the Echo. The Echo can be expected to fix its mistakes when it makes factual or editorial errors; however, this does not necessarily constitute an apology. The Echo can be expected to publically apologize when there is a failure of its internal standards as well as a great detriment to the community. Unless both of these two conditions are met, the Echo has no responsibility to publicly respond to the complaints and offenses of students.

Institutional standards help us to maintain consistency and accountability, in the same way that rule of law changed human civilization. By having a universally applied and enforced standard, institutional guidelines help us avoid the encroachment of bias into our news coverage. We should not provide exceptions when it suits public sentiment, just as we should not exclusively apply our rules and standards when they suit us. Selective adherence to rules erodes our institutional strength and pushes our paper towards a reactionary system, beholden to its viewers criticisms and critiques.

A reactionary system may seem appealing to those who take great issue with the Echo, but such a system erodes journalistic principles even our critics care about. The media is often accused of being biased in its coverage and selection of the news, but bending to student criticism institutes the very bias that we as a society takes issue with. It is easy to say that the Echo should bend its rules when students are offended in-line with progressive sentiments, but then the Echo would have to equally heed conservative outcry. If the Echo cannot rise above the fray to provided unbiased reporting if it is constantly caught in the clash.

An unbiased and unbeholden media strengthens the institution of the Echo, with cascading benefits for the college as a whole. The Echo can only provide critical and hard-hitting news if it is independent of the involved parties on campus. Our reporters cannot be expected to cover articles that the administration or parts of the student body may view as unfavorable if those groups have a back-door into our publishing process. Without the ability to cover such issues, the Colby community will not be able to hold the administration and other groups accountable for abuses of power or failures of transparency. By exposing and casting off these abuses, we strengthen the legitimacy of our college and our community. But if the Echo is expected to apologize or renege whenever it takes an action deemed controversial, we cannot provide these services and still keep our dignity.

It is not appropriate for me to retrace each of the Echo’s decisions over apologies this year and apply how the Echo’s policy should have been enforced. Yet, in discussing apologies I cannot ignore the recent Joke Issue.

The article on Women’s Rugby was a great example of what the Echo should apologize for: a lack of editorial oversight and writing quality which lead to ineffective satire, a breach of paper protocol, and the unfair treatment of a group at Colby. However, the Joke Issue also illustrated much of what is wrong about the community expectations of the Echo. During the fallout of the Joke Issue, our Editors-in-Chief, Managing Editor and even editors who held no explicit leadership faced complete denigration by their peers, both student and staff. Editors were compared to the Klu Klux Klan. The Echo staff was painted as the worst of Bigots. The Echo staff was expected to confess to these sins, and repent them. To those seeking it, they got more than a full page of the Echo.

A story which has not been told is that of the editors of the Echo. Over the past week, leadership and staff have been fielding all manners of feedback, communications, and criticisms. Sitting in the Echo office Tuesday night, the stress was palpable. At least one thing was clear: we all agreed the Rugby article was a mistake. But the public reprimand did not end with this article. The community capitalized on the Echo’s mistake and saw it as an indication to tear apart the joke issue. In the process, they tore apart our hardworking and well meaning leaders at the Echo. We are still expected to apologize.

Ultimately, the Echo had to combat with the apology culture. As a result, what could have been a genuine apology or an institutional clarification inevitably became framed as a decision of survival. When editors are forced to seriously weigh “how do I make this all go away?” over the institutional strength of the Echo, both our paper and our community suffers. When the skin on their back and the status of their employment is at the forefront of our staff’s mind, both our editors and our readers suffer.

The Echo must look at each case individually and within the standards of our institution. Never forget that the Echo staff is a group of well-meaning, intelligent journalists. All of us work hard to see Colby and its students prosper. We simply wish for Colby to grow with the Echo, not apart from it.