Patterns of Apologia over the Past Century

Research conducted by Kevin A. Stein, Ph.D. & Matthew H. Barton, Ph.D. (Southern Utah University)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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The data provided here comes from a grant-funded project to conduct a content analysis of apologia occurring over the last several decades.  The data is an open-access educational resource and we offer it here for educational purposes only.  Research on apologia (image repair) is incredibly extensive and probably one of the most popular areas in our the communication discipline when it comes to “public” address.  The reason scholars typically look at each case in isolation is because individual offenses (such as nudging another man’s foot in a neighboring bathroom stall) tend to be somewhat unique and the insights extracted from these contexts can be illuminating.

Texts Used in the Analysis

Our intention, at least in the beginning stages of the project, was to include every “prominent” defense ever offered.  This became rather difficult as we discovered that many apologies are not archived online, purchasable videos are incredibly expensive, and that certain public figures have an interest in their embarrassing moments disappearing from cyberspace.  However, we believe our sample of texts is fairly comprehensive in light of these difficulties.  In the end, we collected 409 apologetic statements from 351 different contexts.  Transcripts of the texts were accessed from a variety of locations including websites, newspapers and magazines, and library databases.  Fifty-nine apologia statements were only available in video form and had to be transcribed prior to coding.  The reason for the disparity between number of contexts and total texts coded is that some contexts contained multiple instances of apologia for a single offense.

Coding Framework and Procedures

The coding framework included a variety of variables that we believed might have an impact on the content, structure, and overall effectiveness of the apologia.  These included:

1) Decade of apology: Whether it was issued Pre-1950, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, or Post-2000.

2) Context of apology: Whether the context is political, organizational, celebrity, athlete, international, religious, media, or other.  Politicians were generally presidents, governors, senators, etc.  Organizations were CEOs or some representative of the organization.  Celebrities were movie stars or other prominent people.  Athletes were those involved in sporting events.  The international category generally included nation-states apologizing to other members of the global community.  And, religious included a wide variety of evangelicals.

3) Gender of apologist: Whether the apologist was male or female.

4) Medium for delivery: Whether the apology was issued via press release, television interview, press conference, social media (such as Facebook or Twitter), or a web site.

5) Self-apology or surrogate: Whether the statement was delivered by the person accused or by some other representative.  Even though we suspect that certain statements are written by people behind the scenes, the rhetor takes ownership of those words once he/she delivers them, so we still coded these as a self-apology.  Only when other people quite literally spoke for the accused did we code it as a surrogate apology.

6) Type of offense: Whether the person was accused of sex/infidelity, violence, racism/bigotry, deception/fraud, drugs, inappropriate comments, or other.

7) Apologia strategy: Determined which strategy within Benoit’s image repair framework the accused utilized.  These categories included denial, shifting blame, provocation, defeasibility, accident, good intentions, bolstering, minimization, differentiation, trancendence, attacking the accuser, compensation, corrective action, and mortification (See definitions and examples of these strategies in the other tab under “For Educators”). We added an additional category called the non-apology, where the accused specifically articulates his/her intention to not offer a defense.

During the analysis, we coded by theme, rather than by word, sentence, or paragraph.  The reason for this is because a great deal can occur rhetorically in one sentence or, conversely, nothing of consequence can occur in an entire paragraph.  Additionally, the amount of codable text can vary greatly from apology to apology.  We were also careful not to double code, or assign two different classifications to a single theme.  Once the coding was completed, we checked for intercoder reliability using Cohen’s kappa on a randomly selected 10% of the total texts. This particular reliability test is valuable because it measures coder agreement beyond mere chance. The results of the individual tests of reliability are as follows: Decade of apology (1.00),  role of apologist (.92), gender of apologist (1.00), medium for delivery (.95), self-apology or surrogate (1.00), type of offense (.84), and apologia strategy (.82).

Results of the Study:


Obviously, we need to be cautious when drawing conclusions about the form and nature of apologia rhetoric as a whole because we really are just referring to the general patterns that have surfaced from this data.  We cannot claim that “women are inherently violent,” “politicians spend more time looking for mistresses than representing their constituencies,” or “the media will fabricate its stories to garner public interest.” However, there are some key insights that we might extract from this data.

First, barring legal considerations and the not-always-relevant issue of whether the person actually committed the offense, mortification (the type that directly acknowledges wrongdoing) is probably the best strategy.  Additionally, mortification is very effective when utilized in conjunction with the strategy of corrective action.  It makes sense that if someone committed an offense, he or she should claim responsibility and then offer to repair the damage in the best way they know how.  Benoit and Drew (1994) conducted a study that provided participants hypothetical scenarios in which apologia rhetoric would be required and asked them which strategies they thought were the most appropriate.  These participants generally reported that mortification and corrective action were the most effective strategies.  Does it matter whether these participants just think they are more effective or if they are actually more effective?  Yes, because when it comes to repairing of one’s image, perception is often all that really matters.  If a target audience believes that the strategies are appropriate, the rhetor has succeeded in his/her efforts at least on some level.

 Second, media and technology is changing the nature of apologia in many ways.  For one, it allows for a wider dissemination of these types of messages.  Media will cover the offense, the firestorm of criticism that usually follows, and then the subsequent apology.  There is clearly no escaping the all-seeing eye of the media and its ability to dig up the embarrassing indiscretions of our public figures, thereby ensuring complete ignominy.  Technology has also substantially changed the way people apologize.  They offer apologies through press conferences, press releases, speeches, web pages, Facebook, and Twitter.  Social media in the coming years should have a tremendous impact on the types of apologies that are disseminated because they are so unfiltered, spontaneous, and possibly even more authentic.  However, unfiltered also can mean unpolished.  For example, Kanye West tweeted the following after taking the spotlight away from Taylor Swift and the video music awards: “There are people who have named there kids after me, can you imagine that next day in school. Even though I don’t have kids.”  This statement is in stark contrast to Tiger Woods, who said: “I want to say to each of you simply and directly. I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in.”  The days of waiting for the nightly news to learn about a politicians indiscretions are over.  Now, we seek comprehensive coverage of events on YouTube, Google, Facebook, and Twitter; all locations that create a direct conduit between us and the information we seek.

Third, public apology tends to be a heavily male-dominated activity.  Some inferences that we might make from this are that men actually do screw up more frequently than women, that women get caught less frequently than men do, or that men are in positions in the social hierarchy that expose them to greater public scrutiny. The data from this study only indicates that men apologize much more frequently than women do, but it cannot tell us why, so we are left to speculate. One explanation is that people in positions of power tend to be more susceptible to greater public and media scrutiny.  Fair or not, men tend to dominate political circles, high-level corporate jobs, religious positions, sports, and many other parts of the social structure.  This tends to garner them more opportunities to have their mistakes discovered. Another explanation has to do with basic biology, which says that men are, let’s just say, a bit less choosy and selective about the number of sex partners they engage with in physical interactions.

Fourth, the data supports some our more popular stereotypes about people.  It seems to show, at least on the surface, that women are more likely to use mortification than men.  One explanation for this might be that when women communicate with others, they often do so for the purpose of building or maintaining positive relationships.  Men tend to communicate for instrumental purposes or simply to get things done.  It may be that women apologize not only to repair image, but also to heal any damage that has been done in their interpersonal relationships.  We also learn from this data that politicians are engaged in mostly sexual offenses, which happened twice as frequently as the second most prevalent offense of deception.  Perhaps politicians are rationalizing their behavior by claiming they are only lying to their wives and not to their constituents.  Other stereotypes supported by the data include media engaging in a healthy amount deception, religious leaders utilizing a great deal of mortification, men engaging in more sex offenses than women, and athletes being involved in greater levels of violence.

Fifth, the data also runs counter to some very common stereotypes. One of these has already been addressed, which is the fact that women were engaged in violent offenses more frequently than men.  Another interesting pattern is that men and women had equal amounts of bigotry, drug/alcohol use, and inappropriate comments. We also found a pattern in which religious leaders engaged in more sex/infidelity than other types of offenses.  We suspect that this pattern emerged because of the hypocrisy associated with church leaders denouncing immoral behavior and then proceeding to violate those commitments.  It may not be the case that members of the clergy are not engaged in other kinds of indiscretions.  Those mistakes just may not be as newsworthy as violations of those deeper religious convictions.

 One really interesting implication of all this data is that the variety of different types of offenses may make it very difficult for public relations practitioners to develop strategies to effectively manage their clients’ images.  In fact, 427 out of 2,147 total defensive statements involved situations that could not be classified into clear categories (such as sex, violence, drugs, etc).  Some of these situations were so distinctive that they would likely demand unique responses.  For example, when Bill Maher of the show Real Time compared his two dogs to “retarded children,” his publicist probably had some idea of what might be a good response, but would have to tailor it to the situation.  Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”  What this means, if applied to the area of apologetic rhetoric, is that PR practitioners should be flexible enough to adapt their skills to these unique contexts.  There is often no formal playbook on how to respond when Ashlee Simpson lip synchs a performance on Saturday Night Live, Justin Timberlake tears off Janet Jackson’s bra at the Super Bowl halftime show, an Applebees waiter serves an alcoholic beverages to a toddler, Dan Quayle misspells “potato” during a visit to an elementary school, or Harry Whittington gets shot in the face by the Vice-President of the United States.  When these situations arise, we have to consider all of the individual elements of the situation, maintain an awareness of the different options available, factor in the audience and its expectations of the accused, and then choose the appropriate strategy.

Future researchers might seek to examine tonal components of the apologia discourse as well as to examine message content in more private contexts, such as within interpersonal relationships.  Additionally, quantitative scholars might be able to accomplish the difficult task of measuring the effectiveness of the apologia as opposed to making interpretive judgments based on textual evidences or by utilizing opinion polls to gauge audience response.  The difficulty with this latter approach is that we cannot conclusively determine that the apology itself was the single variable impacting the positive or negative responses in public polls.  The difficulty of measuring effectiveness is compounded when trying to measure the effectiveness of multiple apologies over a long range of time.  Despite the limitations in this analysis and the need for future research, we believe our contribution is substantial in illuminating the content of apologia messages over time and in establishing how certain variables, such as type of offense, context, or gender change the way these messages are structured and possibly perceived.  If the message is not constructed and delivered in the appropriate way, audiences are likely to perceive the public apology as more expedient than heartfelt, which may contribute to the public’s overall cynicism toward this type of discourse. American Poet Kimberly Johnson perhaps wrote it best when she said: “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”