To Rebuild Public Trust, We Need to Challenge Establishment Culture

Jenny Choi, News Integrity Initiative

Credit: Alice Donovan

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a profound time where institutions fundamental to ensuring a healthy democracy (e.g., philanthropy, government officials, journalism organizations) faced a reckoning in the long-simmering tensions surrounding the public in a new “infogagement” landscape.

The concerns had much to do with the reality that our once trusted, established institutions seemed starkly disconnected with the public, and that civic discourse increasingly became not only polarizing but toxic, especially online. We also learned that with toxic communication online, the viral spread of disinformation became a lucrative business — deepening the chasm between divergent lived experiences.

While research on the impact of exposure to misinformation and civic disposition is still nascent, we know from the extensive body of work from Harvard Berkman Center’s Youth and Media Lab that the next generation of information consumers are shifting away from perceiving news as a trusted institution. Furthermore, the democratization of content creation and dissemination has given audiences more choice than mainstream news providers really care to acknowledge.

So how can news organizations reconfigure their role of relevance in fostering a healthy democracy by earning public trust and create conditions where constructive, collective civic decision-making can truly thrive?

Step One: Use a critical power analysis to precisely and deeply interrogate the erosion of trust.

Building trust requires asking difficult questions and leaning into conflict to address them. There’s also an often unspoken truth that power can be a huge source of tension in building trust, a difficult reality when even the best-intentioned institutions (and people) struggle to give up or share power.

For example, how do journalists function as gatekeepers for “truth” for audiences who feel their stories are unheard or misrepresented? Who defines and chooses the “experts” determining that truth? When these definitions and decisions do not connect with audiences, how do audiences then reject information from news organizations?

Furthermore, how does this rejection detrimentally affect civic engagement? (See Meira Levinson’s examination of the civic empowerment gap.) It’s important to interrogate how, in mainstream culture, we rationalize all the decisions that undermine avenues for civic empowerment in a way that might shift establishment power. Examples of misrepresentation in the media have long illustrated the insidious implications of how inaccurate portrayals undermine community progress. Who controls the narrative and how? Our avoidance of critically confronting these difficult questions is a root cause of why we’re still struggling with race and equity in and by journalism institutions, for example.

Step Two: We need more sophistication in measuring trust and creating safe spaces for discourse online.

We have some baseline data, thanks to the American Press Institute, Pew, and Cortico, who are working on identifying the indicators of the health of our public conversations. But in further developing these metrics, let’s take a very nuanced look at trust, utilizing a culturally competent lens, and tapping into cross-pollinating expertise between technologists and engineers, news organizations, (online) human behavior and communication scientists, cultural anthropologists, and others.

Credit: Rawpixel

Additionally, there needs to be a deeper analysis that disaggregates and contextualizes existing public trust data with follow-up research. Without taking the time to explore the details behind the data and more deeply understand the context, it’s difficult to make meaningful progress. An intersectional, culturally competent approach will be key in identifying the unique skillset for facilitating a civil discourse online that is challenged by anonymity and often lacks context. This study by the Center for Media Engagement seeking to understand audience attitudes towards local news, for example, breaks down heavily segregated Chicago audiences by neighborhood, which is a particularly nuanced approach in a city where residents attach identity to where they live, and illustrates significant attitudinal differences by zip code. The Center is also engaging local stakeholders to help inform the design of the questions for richer and more accurate information, reaching under-resourced communities where trust is difficult to earn.

Step Three: We must critically analyze group dynamics within the cross-pollinating coalitions working to solve for the issue of public trust.

Do we have the right mix of influencers with true problem-solving dispositions? More importantly, do the key players understand the complex art and science of creating the conditions necessary for building trust that actually resonate with the public? Do these folks trust each other and have agency? It’s impossible for any work to be sustainable without addressing these questions to solve the complex issue of building public trust.

People know when trust is earned authentically — and where power is embedded culturally; this process is often uncomfortable, even painful, especially when those (institutions) with power must share or give up power for the greater good. But it’s difficult to make true progress without a truth and reconciliation of how we, in our various institutional roles, have set the stage for the current crisis of eroding public trust — by prioritizing our own agendas over the public interest. Only then we can take collective action to undo the harm and rebuild.


Jenny Choi serves as the associate director of the News Integrity Initiative at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a grantmaking initiative to build trust between the news and the public and foster a civil civic discourse. Choi has extensive experience at the intersection of local news, community engagement and philanthropy. Most recently as vice president and chief content officer for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, she led a team of eight to steer cutting edge products such as the first philanthropy self-assessment guide on how to shift power in grantmaking for social justice movements, and best practice guides grounded in research for building wealth in the South. She also directed a $4 million portfolio specializing in journalism for a higher quality of civic engagement at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago which included seed funding for exciting projects such as City Bureau, the Chicago Data Collaborative and the Stanford History Education Group’s assessments on civic online reasoning (online information literacy). There, she co-founded and chaired a racial equity committee to apply a diversity equity inclusion lens on grantmaking foundation-wide.


This piece is a commentary on the PACE paper: “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” Please see the publication for more commentaries and the original paper — and follow #Infogagement to continue the conversation.