The president of Penn State, the largest and most influential institution of higher education in Pennsylvania, recently used a meeting with faculty and staff to air her grievances about local news coverage, even referring to “fake news.”
At a town hall meeting with the College of Earth & Mineral Sciences, Bendapudi took aim at a Spotlight PA story about layoffs that was published by the Centre Daily Times, among other partner newsrooms.
An employee in the audience told Bendapudi that staff morale is “really low,” for several reasons.
“The story in the Centre Daily Times didn’t help at all in talking about staff layoffs…” the employee can be heard saying to Bendapudi in a video recording. “Can you please address staff morale?”
The story — “Penn State president says cuts will be deeper than anticipated as leaders finalize layoff plans” — had already elicited criticism from the university’s strategic communications office.
“Regarding headlines, I need your help, people. I do not know what to do,” Bendapudi said. “There is no truth to it.”
She later lamented that she’d never thought she would use the term “fake news,” a phrase that originally meant the widespread dissemination of false information before President Donald Trump popularized it as a means of denigrating and dismissing factual, evidence-based news coverage.
We are not fake news. We are your neighbors. We love local coffee, shop at the farmers markets, and hike in Rothrock. We want to see our community grow and thrive. And we spend countless hours ensuring our coverage of the community is fair, transparent, and factual.
The Centre Daily Times has been a trusted news source in Centre County for almost 125 years, and Spotlight PA, now in its fourth year, has earned a national reputation as one of the leading local investigative and public-service news outlets in the United States. Last year, Spotlight PA launched its first regional bureau, right here in our region.
Together, we ask hard questions because our neighbors, taxpayers, business leaders, students, alumni, faculty, staff, and more deserve the answers. We provide tough but fair coverage of Penn State, pushing the institution for information and transparency so people affected by its decisions know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how they can get involved and be heard.
No institution is above scrutiny, especially not one as powerful and influential as Penn State. And not even our own newsrooms. We aim to be honest, transparent, and accountable, especially when we make mistakes — because that’s what we expect of the people and organizations we cover.
But in this case, Spotlight PA stands by its reporting. As a partner that has a responsibility of ensuring accuracy of everything it publishes, so does the CDT.
In a response to the university’s request that Spotlight PA change its headline, Spotlight PA Investigative Reporter Wyatt Massey explained the evidence that supported its accuracy. Among that was that university leaders, including Bendapudi, made statements in the fall that the university had no plans for mass layoffs. But, according to our reporting, almost every unit at Penn State has been directed to create layoff plans. The university has also publicly mentioned layoffs.
Disagreements over headlines aren’t new, and reasonable people can come to different conclusions. But that’s entirely different from leveling charges of “fake news.”
Local news — and especially investigative and accountability journalism — are vital to the health of our community, state, and democracy. The CDT and Spotlight PA are committed to reporting the truth, fairly and accurately, and our work to hold power to account will not be deterred.
Jessica McAllister is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times, a newsroom that has been based in Centre County for more than a century and produces essential news and information for our print and digital audience. Visit www.CentreDaily.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Rafacz is the editor of Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau — which produces public-service and accountability coverage of Penn State, local news in State College, and local government and rural issues in the north-central Pennsylvania region. Learn more about how to support its work at spotlightpa.org/statecollege/donate.