Yesterday, I screwed up badly, when I unfairly mixed my journalistic and voluntary association responsibilities; in the process creating unwelcome stress for a public servant and for my fellow executive members at the voluntary association. (While in this case, the error is mine, I don’t think it is helpful to publicly identify the individual or association I wronged here — because that would simply add to the problem.)
The problem: I had technical/operational responsibilities for co-ordinating an event where a Government of Canada employee would be speaking. At the evening’s event, I identified myself, said I would be writing about her presentation and offered to give her the opportunity to review the story before publication, but on a short timeframe (as the coverage would be in our daily newspaper.)
She was somewhat taken aback by my request but agreed — and the next morning I wrote the story, asking her to respond if possible later in the day. She said she would need an extra day, and I agreed, and then she returned the story with changes, which I accepted.
All’s well . . . not.
Suddenly I received an email from her saying she had not received permission from her superiors to be quoted in the press and regretfully the story would have to be cancelled.
I pushed back, asserting journalistic independence and that the event wasn’t private — but I fear my real motivation was related to the “hole” that suddenly had appeared in the upcoming Ontario Construction News issue.
She, rightfully, responded with some anger, saying that in that case, she would need to rewrite the story to take out the departmental references and would get it to me in a day.
I received some firm and not warm feedback from my fellow association executive members.
Then the light hit my thick skull. I was, indeed, wrong.
First, I had failed to give the person proper notice about my journalistic intents. Secondly, I failed to recognize the unreasonable bind I was causing this individual — as a public servant, she can’t freely speak to the media outside of significant constraints and operating rules.
Maybe I could have gotten away with my “journalistic imperative” if I was just an ordinary person who had purchased a ticket to the event — but I was key part of the organizing group who had invited her to speak.
As it is, my apology has been accepted and the speaker is continuing with her plans to write her own version of the story, though I will not press the matter and if it doesn’t arrive, certainly won’t complain about it.
In situations when we do wrong, apologies don’t erase the error that made the apology necessary. And generally, when we screw up, we can leave lasting scars and damage. Yet there is something to be said for accepting responsibility, mitigating the damage and learning lessons from the experience.
I was wrong. I hope I learned some important lessens.