Trust in journalism is no longer a question of integrity

Trust in journalism hit an all-time low in 2022.
In Gallup and the Knight Foundation’s most recent annual American Views survey, it was reported that “only 26% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the news media, the lowest level Gallup and Knight have recorded in the past five years, while 53% hold an unfavorable view.”
Lately, we are concerned that this decreased faith in the media has extended to our campus community and this newspaper, with complaints about our journalistic processes anonymously registered on Yik Yak and verbally registered to some of our editors and writers.
The Campus adheres to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Every article we post or print is scrutinized by our section editors, editors-in-chief and faculty adviser for factual gaps and potential editorializing. We reach out to those who are mentioned in a story for comment and make clear if they did or did not respond. We debate the factual transparency of mentioning people by name in our newspaper with the protection of granting anonymity or omitting their presence from the story entirely. This is all done on a case-by-case basis; just as there are very few effective blanket rules in life, there are few in journalism. Every story, source and subject is different, and as the SPJ advises: “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
Unfortunately, in the age of increased skepticism in the media, the pursuit of truthful and transparent reporting is often misconstrued as arrogance or undue intrusiveness. As journalists focused on serving the interests of a small, cloistered community, our work is far more mundane and iterative than the swashbuckling investigative journalists one sees in movies. We do our fair share of digging to ensure our articles present the fullest picture possible, but the main focus of our writing tends to revolve around compiling and arranging publicly-available or freely-given information in a way that the average reader would not have time or connections to do independently. Our goal is to make members of the Allegheny community better informed about goings-on around campus than they would be able to achieve as individuals.
For instance, in our weekly Allegheny Student Government column, the most notable moments of the general assembly — whether they be significant legislation, presentations by administrators or statements by representatives — are compiled alongside relevant follow-up interviews.
Imagine an individual’s quest for the same amount of information independently. This individual, should they wish to be well-informed about ASG’s business, would need to attend the public GA, seek out several members of ASG to answer relevant questions after the meeting, schedule appointments with administrators for follow-up conversations, introduce themself to community members and initiate further discussion about their connection to that week’s business and study ASG’s constitution and rules of procedure to ensure the student government is adhering to its own Constitution and By-laws.
They would need to do this every week — and it would likely take up their entire week, combined with schoolwork and extracurriculars. At the end of it all, they would be well-informed about the GA and likely nothing else. They would need to spend a comparable amount of time and energy on every important event around campus every week to gain the same amount of knowledge that results from sitting down with an issue of The Campus, a document that compiles anywhere from 12 to 18 rigorously-researched stories every week.
Transparency about our processes, though, is likely not the culprit for decreasing trust. Gallup and the Knight Foundation tied the downward trend of trust in the media not to credibility or transparency of the outlets, but rather “the affective or emotional aspects of trust — that is, how trust in news is related to how people feel about news outlets.”
An individual’s emotional response to the idea or reputation of a particular outlet, then, is more likely to be responsible for decreased trust in journalism than any factual or ethical error on the outlet’s part. And when an individual feels slighted by an outlet for personal reasons, it does not take long for this emotional distrust to begin masquerading as legitimate concern for transparency or ethicality, which can spread like a disease. Before long, a whole community can develop a gut-instinct distrust for an outlet for no reason other than the emotional response of those around them.
As for the emotional root of the current distrust on campus, the SPJ code of ethics makes clear that journalists must “deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.” The denial of favored coverage to those who purchase advertisements or otherwise fund printing, then, can be perceived as a personal slight or attack rather than adherence to the strict code of ethics by which we operate. The Campus has a 147-year commitment to putting accountability and truth over favored treatment of our backers — backers for whom we are deeply grateful and of whom we assume a shared commitment to informing the public over special treatment.
According to an October 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center, Americans aged 18-29 are nearly just as likely to trust information they find on social media as they are to trust information from a national news outlet, with their faith in the former rising from 44% in 2016 to 50% and faith in the latter sinking from 62% to 56%. Where there was once a gap of 18 percentage points between the two, there is now six — and the trend is predicted to continue.
When anonymous and untruthful or misconstrued claims about this newspaper’s journalistic practices begin to spread via social media, then, the primary audience for our journalism — adults aged 18-29 — are nearly just as likely to believe these posts as they are the reporting we put out every Friday. And, as Gallup points out, once an individual or community possesses a negative sentiment about the media, this sentiment will tend to impair or obstruct any attempt on the part of the outlet to repair or restore that trust.
As journalists — and, yes, we are journalists — we prefer that conversations and critiques happen in the light. Journalism is, at its core, a long tradition of asking questions, holding institutions accountable to potential critique and attempting in good faith to maintain a well-informed public. We are not against or immune to criticism, nor questions about our processes and ethics, as they are the only way to truly preserve our credibility. But hostile, anonymous criticism and a refusal to engage in a dialogue smacks of vendetta rather than productive public discourse, the latter to which The Campus is strongly committed.