What an Apology Should and Should Not Do

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defines the essence of a conscientious apology. Rep. Ted Yoho’s attempt at one denies, obfuscates, justifies and spins. See the textual analysis below.

Earlier this month Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) engaged in what a reporter called a “heated exchange” with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol, telling her she was “disgusting” for linking poverty and unemployment with increased crime.

She told him he was being rude and walked away. A reporter then overhead Yoho say, “f–king b—h.”

Here is the initial report by The Hill.

Upon learning the exchange would be reported, Yoho delivered the above attempt at an apology. Technically, it failed because (a) he never mentioned AOC’s name, (b) tried to justify his behavior, and (c) spun the truth rather than admit it.

Here’s a textual analysis:

Ethically, an apology should:

  1. Identify the error or wrongdoing (what it was, when and where it occurred, and whom it harmed).
  2. Correct the record.
  3. Do so as soon as possible.
  4. Do so prominently.
  5. Provide an explanation about the error or wrongdoing.
  6. Disclose how the error or wrongdoing could have been avoided and/or how it will be prevented in the future.
  7.  Issue a sincere apology to those damaged by the false disclosure or wrongdoing.

At best, Yoho made a quick, prominent attempt to admit wrongdoing but failed to do so sincerely in his “non-apology apology.”

Living Media Ethics has researched apologies, categorizing them into five categories:

I. Non-Apology Apology

The accused did nothing wrong and those offended may be too sensitive or misguided. Typically, it includes the words–“I apologize if you felt offended” or “I apologize if you misinterpreted my actions.”

II. Excuse Apology 

The accused did something wrong but wouldn’t normally have done this except for the fact that [add excuse].

III. Justified Apology

The accused may have crossed the line but probably was justified in doing so.

IV. Personal-interest Apology

The accused expresses regret because of possible consequences to career, family, ambition or other individual objective or concern.

V. Conscientious Apology

The accused expresses true sorrow for causing pain, conflict or disparagement on another person, organization or group.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez delivered what some say was the speech of a lifetime refuting Yoho’s apology. You can listen to it below.

Among the many highlights is this statement, accurately conveying the essence of a conscientious apology:

“Having daughters is not what makes someone a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect is what makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he does apologize. Not to save face. Not to win a vote. He apologizes, genuinely, to repair and acknowledge the harm done, so that we can all move on.”

Hers is a textbook example of how to make an ethical apology. Rep. Yoho’s is a textbook example of how not to.

There are always consequences when one attempts an apology but does not deliver an ethical or sincere one. When that happens, as in this case, the failed apology becomes the news.


  • Bugeja, Michael. Making Whole: Ethics of Corrections in Three Case Studies across Platforms. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 22, No. 1, 49-65.
  • Bugeja, Michael. “Correction Policies” in Encyclopedia of Journalism. Ed. by Gregory A. Borchard. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, 2020.

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