The Trust Project
Rita Beamish '74 spent several decades as a newspaper, wire service, and freelance reporter—including 20 years with The Associated Press as a White House, political, environmental, and investigative reporter. She is currently a part-time copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and a freelance journalist. She writes about environmental, aging, investigative, and political topics.
What did your time as a The Santa Clara journalist teach you about the importance of trust and transparency in journalism?
As student journalists in a time of social upheaval, we focused carefully on accuracy and fairness. We had little to no interference from administrators (the newspaper was not connected to a class or professor) and we felt an obligation to tell our readers the facts as we knew them. With no “clicks” or ratings, and few other sources of campus news, we never had a thought of being anything other than straightforward and we took our role as holders of the readers’ trust seriously.
Did your experience on The Santa Clara inform your future career choice?
I already had chosen journalism as a profession, but The Santa Clara gave me my first ever chance to try it out. I was hooked from day one.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in delivering quality journalism today?
This is a unique time to ponder this question. Increasingly in the years of the internet age, we’ve dealt with sloppy, weak, even made-up news stories that pretend to be journalism but are just somebody’s navel-gazing or online political project. The problem now is that we have the most powerful office in the world challenging our First Amendment, relentlessly undermining critical establishment journalism as being fake. The president strategically co-opted the label of “fake news,” which emerged as a legitimate description of the Russian web activities and other made-up stories the 2016 campaign produced—not just spin but utterly made up—and he applies it to real, standards-honoring, legitimate news outlets that carry out their responsibility to hold power accountable. So we have lost the meaning of what was a new and accurate description of a legitimately huge problem, fake news.
For many years, the U.S. had the moral high ground in upholding press freedom around the world. Now we have an administration that calls reporters the enemies of freedom, on the heels of a campaign where reporters were physically afraid of crowds that were whipped up against them.
It’s not a question of delivering quality journalism—the work that is being done by the New York Times and Washington Post and Associated Press and other major organizations is probably the best we’ve ever seen. The problem is in how real, responsible journalism can penetrate an environment where millions of people are being swamped by inside-out “news” and misdirection to an extent we’ve never seen. Quality journalism has many platforms, but arenas that used to be dominated by real journalism now are flooded with every other kind of material—not beholden to rigorous journalistic standards—that the information age offers, much of it masquerading as journalism. At the same time, people are being encouraged and directed from the top to ignore the First Amendment and disregard the outlets they can trust the most.
If you are familiar with the work of the Trust Project, which aspects of its Trust Indicators do you think will be most helpful in the current media environment?
Not really familiar, but I support anything that can help the readers discern fake news from real news, spin from trusted sources, respected journalism from internet blogging, journalistic standards from people just spewing.