Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Should You Apologize For A Mistake That Wasn’t Your Fault?

Earlier this summer, I wrote about the mini-crisis I had when I found out an assignment I was researching was due that week and no one had told me. That one, I’ll admit, was largely my fault, since I didn’t ask what my deadline was.

But I learned from my mistake. After that snafu, I made a point of always asking when my assignments were due.

That’s why this recent incident is particularly frustrating. I had been assigned a small piece for a web-only supplement to an article, and told I had two weeks to do it.

But last week, I got an email from the assigning editor asking if the piece was done yet. I was a little surprised, since it was a full week and a half before the deadline I had been given, but I told the editor I would try to get it to him the next day.

I frantically sent a third follow-up email to the source I needed for the story and tried to call him multiple times, but with the time difference and other factors, he didn’t get back to me. I waited, and called, and emailed, and called other people from the organization, and crossed my fingers and prayed to the journalism gods, but by 4 p.m. the next day, I still didn’t have the interview I needed and couldn't write the piece.

I felt terrible. I couldn’t find the right words to tell the editor that I didn’t have the story. I tried to write him an email, but there was no way to express how awful I felt without sounding whiny or pathetic or just incompetent. So I went to his office and sheepishly explained that I had tried – really, I had – but didn’t have the interview yet.

My editor was understanding enough – turns out he had misunderstood when the web team needed the piece, which is why he had told me I had two weeks to write it. When I heard this I was a little angry. Why was I suffering because of my editor’s mistake? Why hadn't he told me earlier he had made a mistake instead of just demanding the story a week and a half early? Was he going to apologize for making me scramble and feel terrible about myself when I hadn’t actually done anything wrong?

Of course, he's the editor, so he doesn’t have to apologize. I have to apologize. And even though I really didn’t believe it, and even though I wanted to scream, I told him, “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault.”

I was upset for a while. I felt like a failure, and I was mad my editor had made me feel that way, because I know I could’ve gotten that interview in three days if I hadn’t thought I had two weeks. But a few days later, the editor came by with another assignment. I was shocked, thinking I had lost his trust forever by blowing the first story, but it turns out he really appreciated that I had taken responsibility for missing the deadline, even though he now acknowledged it wasn’t my fault.

I’m glad I took responsibility for this mistake, even though I’m not sure it was entirely my fault, because it preserved my relationship with my editor. I guess the way I think of it is that if we were colleagues, I wouldn’t want to throw him under the bus, and just because I'm an intern it shouldn't be any different. But I’m also still a little upset that the whole incident made me look inept as a reporter.

So what do you think, Edsters? Did I do the right thing? How would you handle a situation like this?

Happy Wednesday,
Edit intern


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I am not an edit intern; I came across your blog post while searching for an etiqette rule on "acknowledging a mistake that wasn't your fault," but I felt compelled to reply to your query anyway because I have often run into this scenario in my professional life. I feel that, when your editor called and said "Hey, is this piece finished yet," your response should have been "No, I thought the deadline was [x]. Do you need it sooner?" This establishes right off the bat that it "wasn't your fault," without making you sound whiny or anything, and also says that you will be willing to try and expedite the process. Politically, this is a good move, because it says that you are not a push-over but are a team player, and more importantly, it Covers Your A$$. CYA is a Big Deal, no matter what line of work you're in. It's not about passing the buck - if something is legitimatally Not Your Fault, you shouldn't accept the blame for it.