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On truth, trust — and how Americans feel about them

“The U.S. is enduring the worst collapse ever recorded in the history of the Edelman Trust Barometer. This is led by a decline in trust in government,” writes CEO Richard Edelman. 

Trust matters. At least I think so. Old-fashioned journalists took it as fundamental doctrine and were trained to believe that one important kind of trust, the kind journalists strove to earn, depended on getting facts right and, if they got one wrong, admitting it and correcting the error.  

Those were the days. Back then, we probably believed that something similar applied to elected officials – that the ones found to be lying about the facts would eventually lose the trust necessary to their careers. That always worked in Frank Capra movies, didn’t it?

Confidence in that idea is undergoing a rethink.

But back to trust itself. There’s a U.S.-based firm called Edelman that has, for 18 years, conducted surveys around the world and issued an annual report on trends in “trust,” in conjunction with the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which opens today.

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So the report just came out.

The past year has been bad for “trust,” and especially bad in our poor, dear old United States, which lost the most ground of any nation compared to the previous report and actually had the worst one-year trust hemorrhage of any nation in the 18-year history of the exercise.

Richard Edelman, CEO of the U.S.-based firm, writes in his annual report on the trust survey:

The U.S. is enduring the worst collapse ever recorded in the history of the Edelman Trust Barometer. This is led by a decline in trust in government, which is down 30 points among the informed public and 14 points among the general population, while for the informed public trust in each of the other institutions sank by 20 or more points.

General population trust declined nine points on the Trust Index scale to 43, placing the nation in the lower middle segment. But informed public trust imploded, down 23 Trust Index points to 45, ranking the U.S. lowest of the 28 nations surveyed, and all but eliminating the trust gap between the informed public and the mass population. This decline is transversal, across age, region and gender.

Views on the honesty, reliability and objectivity of the news media were obviously part of this dismal picture. As the Edelman report was released, a Knight Foundation study, based on a Gallup survey of Americans’ attitudes to the news, titled “10 Reasons Why Americans’ Trust in the Media Is at an All-Time Low” reinforced the seriousness of the breakdown of trust among Americans.

For example, from the report:

“Eighty-four percent of Americans believe the news media have a critical or very important role to play in democracy, particularly in terms of informing the public — yet they don’t see that role being fulfilled and less than half (44 percent) can name an objective news source.

The concept of a “objectivity” is a deep rabbit hole of a topic, but for our purposes here I’ll take it as shorthand for “honest,” “fair” and “balanced.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, big differences appeared across party lines. From the Knight study, based on the Gallup survey:

While 54 percent of Democrats have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of the media, 68 percent of Republicans view the news media in an unfavorable light.

Republicans seemed to endorse the idea, promoted by a certain prominent U.S. public figure, that anything that puts him in a bad light can be dismissed as “fake news.”

Basically, a huge majority of Americans agree that news reporting that is false and inaccurate could be dismissed as “fake news.” But among Republicans, a large portion said that the label “fake news” should be applied even to some accurate reporting.

From the report:

A majority of Americans believe people knowingly portraying false information as if it were true ‘always’ constitutes fake news. Forty percent of Republicans say accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light should ‘always’ be considered fake news.

Edelman, in this case writing about his takeaway from the Knight Foundation study, quoted from the work of Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who escaped Nazi-controlled Europe and became a prominent (and controversial) academic political theorist who wrote, in a book about the rise of the Third Reich titled “The Origins of Totalitarianism”:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will not be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as a lie, but the senses by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed.