Six takeaways from comments on the Knight Commission’s draft report

Nancy Watzman
Apr 26, 2018 · 5 min read
Credit: Sue Kellerman, Creative Commons.

On March 21, we posted “The Necessity for Trust,” the first chapter of the draft report from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, “Renewing Trust in America.” We asked you to comment–and you did.

We summarized six themes running through your comments for the members of the Knight Commission. You can read all the comments–and add to the mix–if you scroll down to the end of the chapter. Here’s an explanation on how to comment.

Just how do you measure trust?

A few commenters took issue with how trust is described and/or measured in the draft chapter. The Harvard scholar Pippa Norris wrote, “This is a well-crafted report but it is strange that this quotes Michael Robinson’s 1970s claims but not the large body of literature since then, started in part by my own A Virtuous Circle book for CUP (2000), which demonstrates that users of mainstream news media are, in fact, usually far more trusting than average in government and political institutions, as well as being more participatory and knowledgeable. This body of research would seem highly relevant but this is not mentioned in the report. It is a major omission which skews the conclusions.”

Another commenter wrote: “[T]he comments on global trust seem out of place as journalistic histories, values and cultures differ so widely. I don’t know why that would be needed in a chapter that is really about American news media.” Another wrote, “one report by a global PR company (however reputable) should not be the basis for such a sweeping assessment.” The latter commenter suggested consulting the work of Thomas Hanitzesch and colleagues, whose “findings emphasize that a decline in trust is neither uniform nor universal.” One commenter urged more specificity in descriptions of trust: “I think it would help if you drew a distinction between trust in government, which seems to focus on people, parties and outcomes; and trust in the processes of government.”

Institutions are complicated

One commenter suggested focusing on the institutions that continue to be trusted as inspiration for solutions, such as the military, small business, and hyperlocal government. “If there is any foundation left for reclaiming / cultivating faith in each other and institutions we can all agree to respect, I think it starts with those building blocks, or some like them.”

Another pointed out we should be very careful as we define or describe institutions and ideas: “Be wary of imagining/operationalizing ‘the press’ and ‘democracy’ as God terms/ideals without considering their multidimensional features and problematic relations of power; as the report notes, ‘the press’ has always seen itself under attack — but which press, whose press, and what is the press?” One commenter expressed that his experience working in Europe shows that parties are in deep decline as a way to organize political life, and suggests that “associations are broken in their current form and don’t meet members’ expectation which has led to dropping participation which is in turn leading to democratic decay.”

Are we in a new age of yellow journalism?

Several readers were moved to comment about descriptions of yellow journalism. One bemoaned the sensationalism pursued by news organizations: “Everything looks and sounds like ‘yellow journalism’ — after awhile it all begins to sound and look the same, and finding the real truthful information is hard.” Another drew a parallel to the yellow journalists of the 1920s and 1930s and what is happening today, “with social media taking cut of the profits.” One commenter noted that the period of yellow journalism “also coincided with the period of muckraking which did a lot to open people’s eyes to structural inequalities and the voiceless in society.”

Media ownership and structure matter

In an email to Charlie Firestone, Aspen Institute, Microsoft researcher danah boyd wrote: “I’m not convinced that it’s possible to have the free press you’re articulating within the confounds of financialized (ROI) capitalism. [People] … assume that the press has to be situated within capitalism. Can it play a democratic role within that configuration?” She also drew a parallel between elected representatives staying close to their constituents and the decline of trust that comes in media when the local media has all but disappeared. “How can you trust news media when you don’t know anyone in the profession?”

One commenter decried what he described as a “glaring hole in your perspective–the role market structure and ownership & governance of news enterprises play in the quality of news. I think the breakdown in trust in news and also in society is simply that people have no say or stake in news enterprises and other institutions they depend on. Such institutions are increasing unresponsive, frequently out of touch, and sometimes downright exploitative (Facebook is a great example).”

Another noted: “I’d like to see a clearer nexus between the demise of the network stations and newspapers (the qualified source of information) and the impact of the internet (individual truth) and how that phenomenon has created a sect of Americans who deliberately focus on their individual truth and refuse to learn and develop a more deliberate objective analysis of information.”

We need to teach creative thinking, not just critical thinking

A few commenters said we need to teach children how to think, not just logically, but also creatively. “We need to rescue education from a standardized fact-based enterprise and bring it to its proper place as an active apprenticeship in thinking,” wrote one. Another observed, “I think that though the press, our education systems, and other cultural institutions we have done a pretty good job training people to think critically. Where we have failed is training people to act creatively. That is to say: as a society we are quite practiced at judging and pulling apart but our ability to put things back together has atrophied.”

One commenter argued that the focus of the draft chapter is wrong: “The issue is not lack of trust in journalism and it’s not lack of trust in government. The issue is our inability to think critically and creatively, and to use our extraordinary capable brains and technology to generate better answers to important questions. Why is there such a massive disconnect between the health care needs of citizens and the laws that our lawmakers do and don’t make?”

Try this title!

One commenter suggested a different title: “‘Renewing Trust in America.’ This title “plays to a double meaning: renewing trust within America and renewing trust in America by the rest of the world, that they can trust Americans are getting & disseminating the right information.”

Anyone who wishes to read the full comments submitted by readers on Medium can find them on the site below individual posts. We are also gathering comments in this google spreadsheet.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Nancy Watzman

Written by

Nancy Watzman is editor of Trust, Media & Democracy on Medium & director of strategic initiatives for Dot Connector Studio.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

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