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Trust Me On This
The erosion of faith in the media, our government and our neighbors will have grave social implications
Like hope and curiosity, the instinct to trust is part of our spiritual structure. You can do just fine without it, so long as you aren’t bothered by a world that seems flat, small, and mean.
But trust, like a bone, seldom grows back as strong once it’s been broken. For citizens in mature democracies, this helps explain the hunched, aching state of the body politic, the toll taken by the long-term collapse of trust that scholars and marketers have been tracking for the past 50 years. From a peak in the 1960s, trust in institutions, whether government or church, business or academia, has hit a record low. As for the press, which the Founders chose to protect as our only constitutionally licensed industry, less than a third of Americans now trust the media to report the news fairly, according to Gallup, and a majority think news organizations are politicized and elitist. (Presumably, we still trust Gallup.)
There’s irony here, salt in the wound: The high point of trust in journalism, at 72 percent, came in 1976, as reporters held accountable leaders who had lied about everything from Vietnam to Watergate. Newspapers took their names as mission statements: Advocate. Inquirer. Tribune. Sentinel.
Investigative reporters are once again on a roll, having recently exposed Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 phone booth, Paul Manafort’s alleged money laundering, and Harvey Weinstein’s predation, along with so much more. But their success at shining the light in dark corners can make the world seem even darker, leading people to assume that most officials are corrupt, most bureaucracies incompetent.
It’s entirely rational that faith in institutions should drop when people conclude that everyone is doing a lousy job. When 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer explored why people were consuming less news, the top reason, at 40 percent, was that it was too depressing. Edelman also found that two-thirds of people feel news organizations are too focused on attracting big audiences; 65 percent think reporters will sacrifice accuracy to be first with a story; 63 percent think the average person can’t distinguish good journalism from rumors and falsehoods. A Gallup/Knight survey in January found that, by 58 percent to 38 percent, people said the explosion of news sources has made it harder, not easier, to be informed.
Which is to say that even before the President declared the press the “enemy of the people,” changes in the sources and funding and flow of news made it harder for reporters and editors to do their jobs.
But it’s too simple to just say “people don’t trust the media anymore,” because they will also tell you they are devoted to Fox News, or the Huffington Post, or the New York Review of Books. It’s a lot like how they revile “Congress” and yet still reelect its members at a rate of about 90 percent. There’s The Media, which is what we judge, and then there’s the media, which is where we live, surrounded by news, memes, clips, texts, snaps, and posts that have the typical American looking at a screen for 11 hours a day and touching their phones 2,167 times.
One defense against a scary world you don’t trust is a sheltered world of your own design. In a country more polarized than at any time since Vietnam, people seek the news they want, the arguments that affirm them, and the communities that comfort them. The Knight-Gallup poll found that when people share news, 68 percent say they are doing it with like-minded people. Life is hard enough without having to defend your worldview to people who don’t share it.
Look back a couple of generations and you can see the erosion of trust extending to individuals as well. The General Social Survey found that the number of people who affirm that “most people can be trusted” dropped from about half in 1972 to less than one-third by 2016. Far from becoming more jaded as we age, the survey finds that older people, especially those born before 1944, are far more trusting than younger people. As the country grows more diverse, it also grows more divided; maybe distrust is just more fallout of globalization, rising inequality, and fear of an uncertain future.
But I would suggest that the single greatest driver of personal distrust is the device we all hold in our hands. The more virtual our relationships, the more they are conducted by text and post, the less experience we have at reading signals, learning body language, testing first impressions, building bonds that can survive dissent and disagreement. If each generation finds it harder to trust the people around them, it’s no wonder institutions of all kinds suffer as well.
In a country more polarized than at any time since Vietnam, people seek the news they want, the arguments that affirm them, and the communities that comfort them.
As the midterms approach, with a Presidential race to follow, as every day brings new tests of democratic resilience, this collapse of trust is no abstract or academic phenomenon. It’s more like a death threat.
Without trust, every transaction is binary and zero-sum; I win, you lose. But for democracy to flourish, there is always another player at the table, a shared idea that there is such thing as a common good that is achieved over time through deliberation and discovery. And for that to work, sometimes the other side has to win. Sometimes you have to accept an IOU. Build a sufficiently intricate lattice of compromises and concessions and odds are everyone benefits over time.
So it is chilling to read in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s important book, How Democracies Die, about just how vulnerable our basic civic skeleton is. The threat does not need to come from tyrants with tanks; it can come from duly elected leaders who have learned to apply brute force to sensitive machinery. Ziblatt and Levitsky argue for the essential democratic value of forbearance, urging that presidents and lawmakers approach their jobs not with win-at-all-costs zeal, exploiting executive orders or abusing Senate rules, but with a spirit of cooperation and respect for norms.
If, for instance, President Obama had the right to negotiate the Iran deal without submitting it to Congress, his successor had the right to bail. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was within his rights to deny Obama a vote on his Supreme Court pick, but imagine the pressure a future Democratic majority leader would face over allowing a confirmation vote on a Trump Supreme Court nominee. And how exactly do we pull back from the race off that cliff into constitutional oblivion?
Trust is a first cousin to forbearance; in a healthy society, the shared commitment to a larger good leads voters and politicians who disagree to allow for the possibility that they are wrong. Settling for less than 100 percent in any negotiation might not give your tribe its ideal outcome, but it does give the country as a whole a reason to believe that the greatest good for the greatest number will be served in the long run.
I’ve not touched on the damage done by this or any president when truth trades at so steep a discount. News organizations have to cover what’s news, which includes any tweet, any lie, any slur or sloppy promise a president makes; Trump is a master at weaponizing journalism’s core principles. Even as reporters debunk his latest conspiracy theory, Trump signals to his cohort that they alone are smart enough to see the Deep State at work. Such is the cunning advantage of the shameless: You accuse the other side of cheating even as you brazenly mark the deck and palm the cards.
But the collapse in trust can be traced back many years, before Trump, before Facebook and Twitter — and we have all had a hand in it. It is lazy wishful thinking to imagine that all will be well if we just throw the bums out and find some new ones.
I would suggest that the single greatest driver of personal distrust is the device we all hold in our hands.
The system of checks and balances the founders designed spoke to a natural human caution about our fallen nature. We should expect the best of our fellow citizens, our leaders and lawmakers, but we should allow for the possibility that they will fall short. The rebuilding of trust will have to begin with ground truths: individuals who come together in service to their community, communities that reach out to support other communities, and leaders at every level who actively work to drain the poison from the process.
As for my profession, we need to keep the lights burning and expose abuse wherever we find it, but we should also be mindful that good news also counts as news, solutions that work need to be celebrated and shared, and politics, unlike sports, works better without a scoreboard.
The trust crash is not the fault of the press, and we aren’t going to fix it alone. But the odds of success will rise if we make its restoration ever more central to our mission. Reporters need to be able to write a positive story about a politician or policy without being accused of “beat sweetening” or being in the tank; cynicism is one more poison in the information stream.
It goes without saying that we can’t afford to miss big stories or get them wrong; the pressure for speed and the sheer volume of news are testing journalists every day, as are bad actors working to trip us up, catch us in an error, or deliberately mislead. But if this past year has proven one thing, it is that fact-checking alone will not be enough.
Teddy Roosevelt usually gets credit for the adage “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” which works for teachers and candidates, but sits uneasily with hardcore journalists: We identify more naturally with detectives than social workers. Yet some of the most groundbreaking, prizewinning reporting I’ve seen in the past year had nothing to do with the gothic drama playing out in Washington and everything to do with how local communities were coping with the opioid crisis, or the hollowing out of factory towns, or the injustices of the juvenile justice system. Our readers and viewers can tell if we seem interested only in what matters to us and not what matters to them.
Which takes us to the abiding challenge of newsroom diversity. Our coverage decisions will be sharper and smarter if our newsrooms reflect the populations we cover, not just in race and gender and ethnicity, but in lived experience. I was grateful during the Iraq war that Time had a former army lieutenant in our newsroom; I wish we’d had more, along with reporters from rural backgrounds, devout families, and business backgrounds, which would likely require recruiting in different zip codes than those that typically launch kids into newsrooms.
Operating with more transparency — for instance, explaining how sources are vetted for credibility and bias, how classified materials are handled, how coverage decisions are made — would also give our audiences more tools to judge our reliability for themselves. I expect this is one reason the New York Times recently allowed a documentary crew to shadow its reporters for more than a year.
At Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, we are building collaborative tools to help newsrooms address “information disorder,” the toxic rumors and doctored images that seep from the darker corners of the web into the information ecosystem. Major foundations, from Knight to Ford to Open Society, are funding efforts to diagnose and treat the trust collapse and are seeking to shore up the foundations of institutions, including the press, that have been rocked by wave after wave of technological, social, and economic change.
There is a growing recognition in the private sector that consumers judge companies not just by what they sell, but how they act—whether they treat employees well, treat the planet gently, and operate in a manner that is ethical and sustainable as well as profitable. Edelman’s trust survey this year found evidence of growing expectations for business leaders: “64 percent of people say that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it.”
But in the end, trust is an individual choice, a private calculation of risk and reward. “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” Hemingway said, which sounds easy and obvious until a promise is broken or a lie exposed. This is a hall of mirrors. It takes trust to rebuild trust. It requires a leap of faith to enter into negotiation in a spirit of good will even when you’ve been burned. Your allies will call you a sucker. Your instincts will tell you to run.
But time and again through our history, we have faced down our doubts about one another in pursuit of a larger purpose. Unless you believe that the country has gotten better and stronger and fairer as trust has declined, then we all have a stake in rebuilding some measure of faith in each other and our core institutions. Our success, our growth, our health and happiness depend on it.