DRAFT Chapter 1: The Necessity for Trust

For comment, draft first chapter of “Renewing Trust in America,” from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy

Chapter 1: The Necessity for Trust
How Democracies Work
Media and Democracy: A Short History
19th Century Growing Pains
Rise of National Media — and National Concerns
The Age of Television News
The New Media
Chart: Trends in Regular News Sources
The Decline of Trust
Chart: Americans’ Trust in Government: 1958–2017
Chart: Americans’ Trust in Government: 1958–2012
Chart: Americans’ Trust in Various Institutions
Chart: Trust in Newspapers and TV News
Global Decline in Trust
Chart: Global Trust Levels in Key Institutions, 2016–2017
Chart: Global Trust Levels in Media, 2016–2017
Findings: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Necessity for Trust

Democracy cannot function without a certain amount of trust among citizens that their government can be relied on to protect the national interest, to act responsibly and to uphold the rule of law. Maintaining trust among citizens does not happen automatically: as one social scientist noted, “every society must teach itself and its young that its basic values are good and its institutions are appropriate for achieving those values. It is this belief in and commitment to the values and institutions — its legitimacy — that allows a nation to transcend brief crises or endure prolonged periods of deprivation.”[1]

This does not mean that citizens need to agree with every action taken by government. In fact, it is expected that citizens should be aware of what their representatives are doing and remain vigilant about potential abuses and corruptions of power. As James Madison acknowledged in The Federalist Papers, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”[2] He understood that abuse of power was inevitable, and therefore citizens were well advised to maintain a degree of distrust of any government “administered by men.”

The need to maintain a balance between these two disparate attitudes has been described as “the paradox of democracy.” One way to understand this paradox is by distinguishing between two types of trust: particular trust in an administration or individual official, which can be contingent, and a deeper, more enduring general trust in a political process that expects disagreements between competing factions and assumes an orderly sharing of power. Democratic politics can function effectively when citizens lack trust in an individual incumbent; in fact, partisan politics assumes such conflicts and offers the recourse of “voting the rascals out” in the next election. A decline in general trust is a more serious issue.

According to Jeffrey Abramson in a White Paper prepared for the Knight Commission,[3] two mechanisms work together to balance these forces and build political trust: First is an “anti-corruption imperative” that insists that public officials act in behalf of the people they represent, not themselves. Abramson cites the 19th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham who argued that:

The French political historian Pierre Rosanvallon has focused specifically on the crucial role that distrust plays in democracies. He identifies a series of mechanisms that skeptical citizens can use to exert pressure on public officials and hold them responsible for their actions, a process that Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy.”[4]

Summarizing the relationship between these two forces, Abramson concludes, “in a democracy, trust and distrust turn out to be complementary rather than opposites.”

The second element required for maintaining political trust is an imperative “to guard against arbitrary rule.” The constitutional system of separation of powers was designed specifically to address this danger, but the functioning of this system ultimately depends on public support for a rule of law that applies to even the most powerful public officials.

How Democracies Work

Every democracy must balance citizens’ commitment to their own interest with their willingness to support the pursuit of a broader public good. But who defines what the public good should be? Abramson describes two different concepts of what a democracy is and how it functions.

In a “pluralist democracy,” the political process encompasses different competing groups, each with its own conception of the common good. Such a system is essentially a collection of private interests that organize into parties or factions to fight for their own policy preferences, with those groups that are able to command a majority having the ability to get their way. This theory assumes that even when we do not share the same values with others, we still share a broader commitment to living with each other and working toward a mutually acceptable course of action. As long as the freedom of speech is maintained and fair elections are ensured, then every group should be able to trust that it has a chance to prevail.

A second model is that of a “deliberative democracy” that emphasizes the need for debate between competing factions in which each makes a reasoned case for its positions, striving to reach a compromise solution, rather than simply pursuing a personal interest. Such a system requires citizens to be informed and willing to enter in a process of genuine dialog with others. Ideally, the process of engaging in pursuit of mutually acceptable decisions will generate greater trust: “By modeling participating in reasoned public debate as a key behavior expected of democratic citizens, as opposed to merely outvoting opponents, deliberative democracy places a premium on community and the trust that makes sharing a common good possible.”[5]

The deliberative model assumes that there is a set of facts that all parties can agree to, even while disagreeing about what to do about them (in the memorable phrase of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts”). A key role for the press under this model is to provide a shared set of facts that disparate parties can debate and a fair account of the debate itself. By contrast, the pluralistic model does not rest on whether any interest group has its facts right: it takes our interests as a given, and sees democracy as a process for working out how best to accommodate them. In this case, the primary role of the press is to enable each faction to communicate its positions to its members and the general pubic.

The pluralistic model is based on the assumption that coalitions are temporary, which means that no one loses all of the time. But if coalitions become permanent when people consistently vote for the same party, the pluralistic model becomes more problematic because there are long-term winners and losers. As polarization increases and political lines harden, the viability of this model becomes questionable.

The pluralistic model may provide a more realistic description of the current political environment, while the deliberative model may represent a more idealized abstraction. But in a time of growing divisiveness and distrust, it may be an ideal worth striving for.

Media and Democracy: A Short History

A free press has been recognized as a vital element of democracy in America since the country’s earliest days and for that reason has been given strong protection by the government. The First Amendment, which bans Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” is justifiably credited for providing the press with enduring protection from government interference. Nonetheless, the growth and evolution of the news media in the United States is accompanied by regularly recurring doubts about its role and its impact on society, particularly at times when new and potentially disruptive media appear on the scene.

Early days. In his seminal study of The Creation of the Media, historian Paul Starr notes that the Founding Fathers recognized that the press had played no small part in helping the country achieve its independence. In fact, newspapers were a distinctive element in colonial America and played an active role in disseminating information and ideas. As early as 1719, Boston had two newspapers and by 1735, when the city’s population was just 15,000, the city had five newspapers. In 1774, the Continental Congress had officially recognized that freedom of the press played an important role, not only in advancing “truth, science, morality and arts in general,” but in promoting discussion “whereby officers are shamed into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs.” And the country’s early leaders understood that the press “had served as a means by which colonists had debated their common interests, developed a national identity and created capacities for cooperative action.”[6]

In addition to restraining itself through the First Amendment from taking steps that could limit the freedom of the press, the American government early took action that was explicitly intended to encourage the wide dissemination of news. The Post Office Act of 1792 included three key provisions that Starr describes as representing “a radical new conception of postal communications”: first, the Act made Congress directly responsible for designating postal routes; second, it protected letters carried by the Post Office from government surveillance, and third, it provided newspapers with special discounts and privileges. Not only did the Act set low postal rates for newspapers, it also mandated that newspapers could exchange copies with each other for free.

The Postal Act was instrumental in creating a true national network for the dissemination of news in this country: As of 1828, the Postal Office employed some three-quarters of the entire civilian federal work force, and there were some 74 post offices per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 17 in Great Britain and just four in France. Newspapers were responsible for 95 percent of the total weight of mail carried by the U.S. postal system but only generated 15 percent of its revenue.[7]

The American policy of both protecting and promoting a free press set it at odds from much of the rest of the world. While the U.S. actively encouraged the spread of news, in much of Europe, publications were taxed and restricted. Prior to the 17th century, the prevailing notion among the rulers of Europe was that “ordinary people were not concerned with government”; according to a 1620 English royal decree, political matters were “not themes or subjects fit for vulgar persons or common meetings” and made divulging parliamentary proceedings a crime. Even though printed newspapers began to appear in Europe in the 17th century, they frequently had to contend with restrictive licensing, high taxes and extensive censorship.

What made America distinctive is that its democracy depended on an informed and engaged citizenry which, in turn, depended on a free press to enable people to express their views and keep informed on what their government was doing. As Starr notes:

The U.S. Constitution vest[ed] sovereignty in the people. The premise of this constitutional order was that the people and their liberties came first, government second…These new political foundations had profound effects on communication. By legitimating the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves, the Revolution dignified their right to speak up…The doctrine of popular sovereignty implied a wide range of free expression … From the beginning of the republic, its citizens “lambasted their leaders, excoriated public policies and acted as if their governments were their servants.”[8]

It is worth noting that from the early days of the Republic, the press was essentially partisan: they were not expected to report objectively on events of the day, but rather to represent the perspectives of the parties that subsidized them.

It is also true that the press in America has not been immune from attacks on its freedom. It was not long before some politicians tired of partisan attacks from the press. The Sedition Act of 1798 — passed less than a decade after ratification of the Bill of Rights — made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government, Congress or the President.” The Act was an attempt to suppress the expression of political dissent at a time when conflict between two parties–the Federalists and the Republicans–was growing in intensity. Although a number of newspaper editors were convicted and jailed under the Act, it eventually “backfired,” with those it intended to punish becoming popular heroes.

As the country gained experience with partisan dispute and the ability of competing factions to share power, support for such a law disappeared. In fact, the increasing popularity of newspapers apparently encouraged greater political engagement: voter participation in the U.S. increased from 27 percent in 1824 to 78 percent in 1840.[9]

19th Century Growing Pains

Throughout the 19th century, the press, and particularly the daily newspaper, continued to grow — and to generate controversy. Several technical innovations brought about a decline in the cost of newspapers: the shift to steam-powered presses led to the rise of the “penny press” in the 1830s, while the introduction of newsprint (paper manufactured from wood pulp rather than rags) in the 1860s further reduced costs of producing a newspaper.

By the eve of the Civil War, the country was home to 4,000 newspapers and periodicals, of which three-fourths were partisan publications. Many of these were adamantly opposed to President Lincoln, who complained that Horace Greely, publisher of The New York Tribune, was causing him “almost as much trouble as the whole Southern Confederacy.” Although Lincoln himself generally chose to tolerate press opposition, “strong arm tactics” against journalists were not uncommon: in 1861, some 200 newspapers were subject to attacks from federal agencies, civilian mobs, or Union troops.[10]

Following the Civil War, the press and freedom of speech came under a different type of attack motivated by an impulse to ban popular works that were deemed likely to contribute to immorality. An 1873 federal law, known as the Comstock Act (named after anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock who led the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), made it a crime to send through the mail “any publication of an indecent character,” which included materials related to abortion or contraception. After being appointed as a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, Comstock led prosecutions of more than 3,000 defendants. (Anti-obscenity laws continued to be enacted and enforced well into the 20th century. It was not until 1983 that the Supreme Court ruled the Comstock Act unconstitutional.)[11]

Despite these challenges, the popularity of newspapers continued to grow. While total daily circulation in the U.S. was 34 newspapers per 100 households in 1870, by 1910, it had risen to 121 per 100 households, or an average of more than one daily newspaper per household. By 1889, New York City was home to 55 daily newspapers, many of them in foreign languages. As papers become more economically successful, they tended to become more independent and less tied to a particular political party, but that did not free them from controversy.

As the audience for newspapers spread from affluent elites to a larger mass audience, the focus of news tended to expand from politics to topics like crime, sports and human-interest stories. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, concern about the impact of the press found a new target in the rise of highly successful but often sensationalistic newspapers:

The ‘yellow journalism’ of the 1890’s and the tabloid journalism of the 1920’s and 1930’s stigmatized the press as a profit motivated purveyor of cheap thrills and vicarious experiences. To its many critics, it seemed as though the press was using the freedom from regulation it enjoyed under the First Amendment to make money instead of fulfilling its vital role as an independent source of information in a democracy.[12]

Perhaps the most notorious practitioner of yellow journalism was William Randolph Hearst, who has sometimes been credited with helping to start the Spanish-American War with provocative coverage in his New York Journal that included the 1898 headline, “DESTRUCTION OF THE WARSHIP MAINE WAS THE WORK OF AN ENEMY.”

The newspaper industry itself was motivated to take action to make journalism more responsible. In 1910, for example, the Kansas State Editorial Association adopted the industry’s first code of ethics that called on publishers to avoid “the publication of fake illustrations…fake interviews…and the issuance of fake news dispatches.”[13]

Rise of National Media — and National Concerns

A big shift in the media landscape came in the 20th century with the arrival of advertising-supported broadcasting — first radio then television — and the emergence of highly successful national magazines. In the 1920s and 1930s, a controversy about the trustworthiness that in some ways prefigured the concerns that have recently arisen about the role of news and its veracity. In 1920, Walter Lippmann, the eminent writer, reporter and political commentator, published a “tract” titled Liberty and the News in which he argued that “the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” With an increasing awareness of the power of propaganda to shape people’s thinking, he warned that “the freedom of thought and speech present themselves in a new light and raise new problems because of the discovery that opinion can be manufactured.”[14] Lippmann called on journalists to be more “objective,” to “develop a sense of evidence” and to be transparent about the limitations of the information available to them.

Reports of widespread panic caused by the 1938 broadcast of Orson Welle’s “War of the Worlds” generated a wave of concern about the growing power of radio to influence behavior, leading one critic to warn that radio was becoming “one of the most dangerous elements in modern culture.” A recent review of Welles’s broadcast and the responses to it concludes that accounts of hysteria caused by the program were greatly overstated and that “newspapers exaggerated the panic to better control the upstart medium of radio, which was becoming the dominant source of breaking news in the thirties.”[15] The pattern of older media responding with alarm to the emergence of new media is one that has happened repeatedly.

The most ambitious effort to examine the role of journalism in the U.S. came in 1947, with the publication of a report of The Commission on Freedom of the Press, known as the Hutchins Commission, titled A Free and Responsible Press. The report summarized its key findings in its opening paragraphs:

The Commission set out to answer the question: Is the freedom of the press in danger? Its answer to the question is: Yes. It concludes that the freedom of the press is in danger for three reasons:

First, the importance of the press to the people has greatly increased with the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication. At the same time the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication has greatly decreased the proportion of the people who can express their opinions and ideas through the press.

Second, the few who are able to use the machinery of the press as an instrument of mass communication have not provided a service adequate to the needs of society.

Third, those who direct the machinery of the press have engaged from time to time in practices which the society condemns and which, if continued, it will inevitably undertake to regulate or control.[16]

The Commission went on to warn that if the “giant agencies of communication are irresponsible, not even the First Amendment will protect their freedom from government control. The Amendment will be amended.” It is noteworthy that the central issue identified by the Hutchins Commission was the relative lack of access of ordinary people to “the press as an instrument of mass communications” — an issue that, as we will see shortly, would be utterly transformed with the arrival of the Internet.

The Age of Television News

In the latter half of the 20th Century, the partisan nature of the press was muted in favor of a press that aspired to objective reporting. With the arrival of television after World War II, broadcasting took on an even more prominent role in American life. Both radio and TV were primarily purveyors of entertainment (which drew the largest ratings and therefore generated the most advertising revenue), but they also regularly reported the news both out of a sense of obligation and legal requirement. Because they required government permission to use the public airways, broadcasters did not enjoy the same sweeping First Amendment protections that print journalists had. Television, for example, was subject to the Fairness Doctrine, in force from 1949 to 1987, which required broadcasters to “present controversial issues of public importance” and to do so in manner that was “honest, equitable, and balanced” — a policy that effectively prevented broadcasters from promoting a partisan viewpoint.

This is not to say that broadcasters and TV news were not powerful forces in American political life. From the 1960s through the 1980s, a majority of adult Americans watched one of the three evening network news programs every day. Television had a unique ability to make distant events immediate and vividly real (a book about the coverage of Vietnam by television news was titled The Living Room War [17]). When CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite expressed misgivings on air about that war, it was considered a seminal moment. But the Fairness Doctrine and the fact that the networks’ true customers were advertisers who wanted to reach the largest possible audience — and recognized that network television was the most efficient medium ever invented for doing so — led broadcasters to avoid controversial or divisive programming (in news as well as entertainment) that ran the risk of alienating viewers.

In cities, a consolidation in newspapers made most markets effective monopolies, which diminished the impetus toward partisanship. Local newspapers often saw themselves as responsible for reflecting “the issues, events, experiences and ideas of the entire community.”[18] As the mass media became ever more massive in the decades following World War II, an era of unprecedented growth in economic prosperity and global political power, the national media, controlled by a handful of powerful gatekeepers, did seem to shift to playing a “homogenizing and standardizing” role in the American political culture.

Even in this seemingly anodyne environment, concerns were again raised about possible negative effects on citizens based on the way news was being presented. Particularly notable was the alarm about the threat of “video malaise” raised by a number of researchers who studied the impact of TV news watching. The term was coined by political scientist Michael Robinson who published a study in 1975 that began by pointing to a “gradual but steady” decline among Americans in their belief in the “worth and appropriateness of our government” as well as in their “own capacity to know and understand politics.”[19] The culprit, Robinson proposed, was a growing dependence of the population on television as its primary source of news. (At its high point, some 60 percent of all American adults regularly watched the national nightly news on one of the three national networks.) Using data from the Michigan Survey Research Center, Robinson showed that the more reliant voters were on television as their source of news (even when controlling for education level), the greater their “personal confusion and estrangement from government.”

To explain these results, Robinson pointed to two major differences in the media environment: first, the nature of what he called the “Inadvertent Audience” for TV news that includes many relatively unsophisticated individuals who very probably would never have been regular consumer of print-based news but are “willing to listen to or watch the news if listening or watching is entertaining.” And to serve this audience, network television provides a product that is based on themes and narratives that are “simple and interesting” and that center on conflict, veniality and social discord. Rather than creating a more knowledgeable, more engaged citizenry, Robinson concluded, the overall effect of network TV news was greater alienation. To counteract this negative impact, Robinson called for networks to provide more explanatory context for their stories, to rely more heavily on quantitative research rather than anecdotal stories, and to work toward greater diversity in network newsrooms.

The New Media

Yet another major shift in the media ecology occurred over the past few decades with the rise, first of cable television and then the Internet, which significantly weakened the hegemony of national TV news and also provided new competition to the printed press by providing multiple new channels for reportage and commentary (and for advertising). But by 1996, the Pew Research Center was reporting that “television news is in trouble with the American public. Viewership of nightly network news is particularly hard hit,” with the number of regular viewers falling to 42 percent (currently, regular viewership is below 30 percent).[20] During the same period, regular readership of newspapers experienced a similar decline (see Figure 1).

Trends in Regular News Sources

The launch of CNN in 1980 meant that television news was no longer confined to a nightly half hour but now operated on a 24-hour cycle. Given the fact that the amount of significant daily news is finite, a certain amount of commentary was included to fill out the schedule, which contributed to a blurring of the line between factual reporting and interpretive commentary. That line became even more blurred with the introduction in 1996 of the Fox News Channel and MSNBC which included “breaking news” but put primary emphasis on commentary from right- and left-leaning perspectives and were never subject to the restrictions of the Fairness Doctrine. By 2012, the collective audience for cable news had surpassed that of the nightly network TV news. As Ethan Zuckerman observed, “after a long age where partisan journalism was less common…cable news made partisan news viable again”[21] — a shift that was reinforced by the next major change in the media landscape.

The newest kid on the media block, of course, has been the Internet. Over the past two decades, the portion of the population that gets its news online has grown dramatically, even as the audience for traditional news media has declined (see Figure 1, above). By making access to news faster, cheaper and more convenient, it has disrupted the delivery and consumption of news, just as it has done to other industries. By enabling more precise targeting of advertising, the Internet has also siphoned substantial ad revenues from traditional media.[22] But what is truly unique about the Internet is that it is an open, two-way medium: it not only offers access to existing content, but it provides the means for every user to distribute their own content more or less on an even footing with every other provider, big or small.

Just as in the 18th century, the new American government chose to protect and promote a free press both by restraining itself from imposing restrictions on it through the First Amendment and to provide low postal rates for newspapers to encourage their wide circulation, in the 20th century, the U.S. government was instrumental in enabling the growth of the Internet. It did this first through its early funding for creation of the ARPANET, which established the technical basis for what evolved into the Internet, and by adopting a “light touch” regulatory approach that placed few restrictions on how the Internet was used. Perhaps most significant has been a section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that provided Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and “platforms” (such as Google and Facebook) with immunity from liability for third party content that they host or convey.[23] This provision allows ISPs and platforms to provide access to a wide range of speech without being liable for the content, and it also permits them to restrict or filter materials they deem to be offensive or objectionable. In other words, the law gives Internet platforms the ability either to carry or not carry content of virtually any kind without fear of legal consequences.

In some ways, the Internet represents the ultimate realization of the democratic ideal of free speech, in large measure fulfilling the desire of the Hutchins Commission to expand access to the press for ordinary citizens. On the other hand, it has given rise to a cacophony of voices that has raised new concerns about what news is and how its veracity can be determined, and about the extent to which these new media pose a challenge to democratic process. These questions provide part of the motivation for this current endeavor. The question of just how big a part is discussed in the following chapter. But first, we need to look at the problem of declining trust in government and other key institutions.

The Decline of Trust

As noted earlier, it is expected that democracies can and will function with a certain amount distrust in the current leaders of the government and their actions. But a lack of general trust in the legitimacy of the political process is not normal. It represents a significant challenge to the functioning of a democracy is a more serious matter.

Unfortunately, numerous studies have found that the overall level of trust in government among Americans has been declining steadily over the past half century and now stands at or near historically low levels. For example, a survey conducted annually by Gallup has tracked public trust in government since 1958. In 1964, nearly three-quarters of Americans (74 percent) said that they “trusted the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ ‘most of the time.’ The percentage of Americans who expressed high trust in the government began falling steadily for the next two decades. There were temporary upticks in this indicator in the 1980s during the Reagan years and again in the mid- to late-1990s during the Clinton and early G.W. Bush years (with a particularly sharp but short-lived surge in trust in the immediate aftermath of 9/11). But the overall trajectory for trust has been down and has remained below 25 percent — or just one-third the level of trust at its high point 50 years earlier — for the past decade.[24] As Ethan Zuckerman notes, it is now as difficult to find a citizen who has a high degree of trust in government today as it was to find someone with a low degree of trust in government in the mid-1960s.

Americans’ Trust in Government: 1958–2017

Source: Pew Research Center

Other major surveys confirm this trend. For example, the American National Election Studies (ANES, a collaboration between Stanford University and the University of Michigan), which has been surveying American voters since 1948, has found an almost identical decline in trust among American citizens — from a high above 60 percent in the 1960s to a low under 25 percent today (see Figure 3).[25]

Americans’ Trust in Government: 1958–2012

Source: ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior

Before considering what might be responsible for this precipitous decline in trust in government, we put this drop in the context of two larger trends: first, the parallel drop in trust in other types of institutions, and secondly, a similar pattern of declining in trust that is happening not just in this country, but globally.

Declining Trust in Many Institutions. In addition to surveying Americans about their trust in government, Gallup has also asked them about their level of trust in a variety of other important institutions.[26] Only three institutions — the military, small business, and the police — enjoy trust levels above 50 percent, while media organizations — newspapers at 24 percent and television news at 21 percent — are near the bottom, along with big business at 21 percent and Congress at just 12 percent (See Figure 4).

Americans’ Trust in Various Institutions

Chart by Ethan Zuckerman 7/17 White Paper, from Gallup data.

An analysis of the Gallup data by Ethan Zuckerman shows that just two institutions, the military and small business, have experienced an increase in trust, while all of the other institutions in the survey have seen drops in their trust ratings over time.

The Gallup survey results also show a steady decline in trust in both newspapers and television over the last few decades (see Figure 5).

Trust in Newspapers and TV News

(% expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust)

Source: Gallup

Global Decline in Trust

An erosion in trust in key institutions is not just confined to the United States: it is a global phenomenon. For the past 17 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has been tracking the level of trust in key institutions in 28 countries around the world. The 2017 edition of the Barometer found what it describes as “a profound “crisis in trust” worldwide: two-thirds of the countries included in the survey were classified as “distrusters” (under 50 percent trust in the institutions of business, government, media and NGOs to “do what is right”), up from just over half of the countries in 2016. Among the four key institutions, government and the media were the least trusted, with trust in media falling by the greatest amount among the four.

Global Trust Levels in Key Institutions, 2016–2017

Source: 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer Ben Boyd presentation, NYC, October 12, 2017

Finally, Edelman reported that globally, “trust in media plunges to all-time lows,” with trust levels well below 50 percent in all but a handful of the 28 countries in the survey (See Figure 7). In fact, the United States, with a trust level of 47 percent (unchanged from the previous year), was above the median in trust in media among the selected countries.

Global Trust Levels in Media, 2016–2017

Source: 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Ben Boyd presentation, NYC, October 12, 2017

Possible reasons for the decline in trust in institutions, and especially government and the media, is the subject of the next chapter of this report.


A. Democracy and Trust

a. Trust is a critical element in the functioning of democracies.

b. Citizens need not agree with every government action or trust each individual officeholder. At a minimum, citizens must trust that their government will protect the national interest, act responsibly and uphold the rule of law.

c. A key challenge for citizens in democracies is to balance the pursuit of individual interests with a willingness to support the broader public good.

B. Media and Democracy

a. A distinctive characteristic of the U.S. political system is its enduring commitment to a free press as vital to maintaining liberty and good government.

b. The U.S. government from its earliest days encouraged a vigorous press both by refraining from restricting press freedom (the First Amendment) and by providing economic support (through low postal rates) for the wide dissemination of news.

c. Despite a strong tradition of supporting a “free press,” critiques of the excesses of the press and efforts to ensure the “responsibility” of the press have occurred repeatedly over the past several centuries, often when a new medium appears on the scene and disrupts previous media patterns.

d. A recurring concern about the press has been the dominance of a limited number of voices and the difficulty of ordinary citizens or divergent viewpoints to get heard. The Internet has largely solved this problem by its radical openness, but this has created a novel set of problems about authenticity and quality of news.

e. An enduring problem for the media is the tension between the drive to maximize revenues and profit and the imperative to serve the public good with high quality journalism. Another ongoing tension is between the press as a platform for varied partisan political views and the press as an objective, professional reporter of facts.

C. The Decline of Trust

a. The overall level of Americans’ trust in government has declined over the past half century and now stands at or near historically low levels.

b. The decline in trust is not confined just to government: surveys show a similar decline in the trust in many institutions, including business, NGOs and the media.

c. The broad decline in societal institutions is not just an American phenomenon: there is a similar “crisis in trust” in many countries around the world. Trust in media globally is now at an all-time low.


[1] Robinson, Michael J, “American Political Legitimacy in an Era of Electronic Journalism: Reflections on the Evening News.” In Douglas Cater and Richard Adler (Eds.), Television as a Social Force: New Approaches to TV Criticism (New York: Praeger, 1975).

[2] James Madison, The Federalist Number 10, The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, November 22, 1787, www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm.

[3] Jeffrey Abramson, Trust and Democracy, White Paper for the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, July 2107, https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2017/07/Abramson.Trust-and-Democracy.pdf.

[4] Pierre Rosenvallon, Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[5] Abramson, ibid.

[6] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), page 70.

[7] Starr, op cit, pages 87–90.

[8] Starr, op cit, pages 64–65.

[9] Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York, Basic Books, 2000), page 40.

[10] Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

[11] Comstock Law of (1873), http://law.jrank.org/pages/5508/Comstock-Law-1873.html.

[12] Joseph Patrick McKerns, “The History of American Journalism: A Bibliographical Essay,” American Studies International, Vol. 15, №1 (Autumn 1976), pp. 17–34.

[13] Alexandra Samuel, “To Fix Fake News, Look to Yellow Journalism,” JSTOR Daily, November 29, 2016, https://daily.jstor.org/to-fix-fake-news-look-to-yellow-journalism.

[14] Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920), online at https://archive.org/stream/libertynews00lippuoft#page/n5/mode/2up.

[15] Adrian Chen, “The Fake-News Fallacy,” The New Yorker, September 4, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/04/the-fake-news-fallacy.

[16] Commission on Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), online at https://archive.org/stream/freeandresponsib029216mbp/freeandresponsib029216mbp_djvu.txt.

[17] Michael Arlen, The Living Room War (New York: Penguin Books, 1982).

[18] Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, The Aspen Institute, 2009, https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/pubs/Informing_Communities_Sustaining_Democracy_in_the_Digital_Age.pdf.

[19] Michael Robinson, op. cit.

[20] TV News Viewership Declines, Pew Research Center, May 13, 1996, www.people-press.org/1996/05/13/tv-news-viewership-declines.

[21] Ethan Zuckerman, Mistrust, Efficacy and The New Civics: Understanding the Deep Roots of the Crisis of Faith in Journalism, White Paper for the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, July 2017. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2017/07/zuckerman.whitepaper.FINAL_.pdf.

[22] The problem of the impact of online news (and other trends) on the decline in the fortunes of many local newspapers was the subject of the first Knight Commission, which in 2009, issued is report titled Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/informing-communities-sustaining-democracy-digital-age.

[23] This provision is Section 230 of Title V of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which is known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). It states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230). For an analysis, see “CDA 230: The Most Important Law Protecting Internet Speech,” The Electric Frontier Foundation, nd, https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230.

[24] Public Trust in Government: 1958–2017, Pew Research Center, May 3, 2017, www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017.

[25] The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Election Behavior, American National Election Surveys, www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/graphs/g5a_5_1.htm.

[26] Confidence in Institutions, Gallup, http://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidenceinstitutions.aspx.


Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy…

Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy

Written by

Our democracy is suffering: misinformation is rampant, the news ecosystem is changing rapidly, and mistrust in the press is rising. We want your ideas on what w

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy

Written by

Our democracy is suffering: misinformation is rampant, the news ecosystem is changing rapidly, and mistrust in the press is rising. We want your ideas on what w

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

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