From Declining Trust to Rising Distrust?

MIKKO POUTANEN

While trust in the media has decreased as a whole, Trump has also given the decline in trust in the media a distinctly politically partisan dimension. In other words, news outlets and audiences are even more strongly polarized, left to their own reinforced frames and narratives. This will make it harder for the citizenry to willingly receive multiple viewpoints without conflicting personal or reporting bias. The consequences of decreased trust and increasing distrust in the media radiates into the society more broadly through the erosion of civil discourse that could be commonly shared. This risks political paralysis and attempts to restore shared social trust.

The Trump campaign and later administration has made attacking established institutions from the polity to the media the linchpin of its strategy. The effects of an intensely polarizing electoral campaign and at least equally polarizing 15 months in office, these attacks seem to have cumulative effect where declining trust in established institutions stacks up, creating a snowball effect. Policy disagreements are played out not only in politics, but in the media as well.

The term “fake news” has become mainstream and is typically applied according to individual political positions. What was previously labelled as fake news – fringe media outlets without editorial oversight or accountability, often peddling conspiracy theories or outrageous claims – have gained credibility through discrediting the established mainstream media outlets.

In this development the declaring power of president Trump to label established media sources explicitly as fake news hardly is inconsequential. While mainstream media should not be, and is not, absolved from critique, president Trump seems to target media based on its treatment of him. In other words, media outlets that offer positive coverage get publically lauded, and media outlets that offer critique are not only derided, they are delegitimized. Unfavorable reporting is represented as objectively false – fake – rather than simply unfavorable.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer[1], trust in the public institutions of the United States has continued to decline. While decline in trust can be argued to be part of a broader trend, the extent of this decline specifically in the US is characterized in the as “record-breaking”.

Richard Edelman, the president and CEO of the Edelman public relations company, commented the results by adding that a drop of this magnitude would typically be linked to an acute crisis of governance (economic, ecological, or other).

Instead, the United States is doing reasonably well by general economic indicators. The variable so detrimental to trust, it seems, is the continued deterioration of public discourse during the Trump administration.

The media-hostile strategy of the Trump administration has accelerated a trend the conservative think-tank Rand Corporation characterizes as “Truth Decay”, which includes “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information”. The decline of trust is not a partisan issue as such, but it can be leveraged for partisan purposes.

A 2017 Gallup and the Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy has found that given how trust in the media has eroded, it makes it harder for the news media to fulfill their democratic responsibilities. Audiences increasingly perceive the media as biased and “struggle to identify objective news sources”. Americans seem to be increasingly sensitive to perceptions of bias, as in the now-infamous case of a synched message delivered on several news channels by the conservative media outlet Sinclair Broadcast Group.

According to the Pew Research Center, global audiences call for politically balanced news with no bias. Especially in the US, audiences feel the news media is not delivering this as promised. It should be stressed, though, that in both Pew and Edelman reports the supporters of the governing party – Republicans – are particularly dissatisfied with the media. This point is repeated by the Edelman Trust Barometer, adding that with conversely with a Republican administration, Democrats trust the government as an institution less.

It would seem that under Trump’s polarizing style of targeting unfavorable reporting suggests many channels are biased, aside from the conservatively aligned Fox News Channel, which the president often watches and tweets about in real time. Trump’s avid and explicit support for Fox should boost the credibility of the channel, though likely only in the eyes of his base.

It would be, then, perhaps more apt to speak of partisan distrust, rather than declining trust. Trust can decline from a variety of reasons, but does not immediately convert into distrust. The difference is that distrust can be invoked into becoming an active mode of thinking.

Distrust towards the media can have a spillover effect to the events and actors that the media covers. First and foremost, however, in a democracy the media is supposed to inform the citizenry and identify the closest approximation of truth. Partisan distrust guides attitudes of distrust according to party lines, although some (retiring) Republicans have spoken out against Trump’s attacks on the media.

In the broader framework of institutions, the media serves an important mediating role that reflects on all the other institutions. Yet, according to the Edelman barometer, the media has for the first time become the least trusted institution globally in 2018.

The issue with trust is not exclusively an issue in the US, although it is the most visible case. However, also the Gallup/Knight Foundation survey suggests that while the current media environment is seen as problematic, the importance of news media to democracy is still strongly acknowledged.

While trust in the media has decreased as a whole, Trump has also made the decline in trust in the media a politically partisan dimension. Attacked media outlets are equally explicit in their responses.

In other words, news outlets and audiences are even more strongly polarized, left to their own reinforced frames and narratives. This will make it harder for the citizenry to willingly receive multiple viewpoints without conflicting personal or reporting bias.

Ironically, once audiences have relocated to and consolidated around their “own” media outlets, trust in media as an institution could stabilize (while maintaining distrust towards specific media outlets).

Nevertheless, the consequences of decreased trust and increasing distrust in the media radiates into the society more broadly through the erosion of commonly shared civil discourse. This risks political paralysis and attempts to restore shared social trust.

Is there hope, then, in new media sources – notably social media – to foster civil discourse conducive to trust? Sadly, it seems unlikely. A recent study published in the prominent journal Science has deduced that on Twitter false news – factually incorrect news, which is different from declared fake news – spread not only faster but also broader than true news reports. False political news in particular showed great viral potential.

It remains to be seen what impact the public pronouncements by Twitter and Facebook to combat fake news will have in the future. The alarming rate of decline of trust both societally and toward the media, suggests a need for intervention, but it is far harder to determine what kind of interventions would be workable.

Given that on social media there is no journalistic filter, Robinson Meyer, writing for The Atlantic, is not optimistic: “On platforms where every user is at once a reader, a writer, and a publisher, falsehoods are too seductive not to succeed: The thrill of novelty is too alluring, the titillation of disgust too difficult to transcend. After a long and aggravating day, even the most staid user might find themselves lunging for the politically advantageous rumor”.

Social media allows for a plethora of voices, but lacks editorial control. As such, the onus on being informed citizens is on the producer-consumers on these platforms. Adding to this the decreased trust in mainstream news, the ground on which societal trust can be built narrows dangerously.

 

Mikko Poutanen is a “PhD-in-spe” for political science at the School of Management in Tampere University, specializing in qualitative research methods with a keen eye on US politics.

 

[1] The data of the barometer relies on simple survey structures asking respondents to define their level of trust per institution (government, media, business, NGOs) on 9-point scale, where one means that you “do not trust [the institution] at all” and nine means that you “trust [the institution] a great deal”. The barometer represents over 33 000 respondents in 28 markets on a timespan of 18 years.

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