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On truth, trust — and how Americans feel about them

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.

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.”

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.

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/22/2018 - 05:07 pm.


    …to Ms. Arendt. As a certified Old Person, I do not recall any previous attack on the media that came close to the hostility of the current administration, or of the neofascist supporters of the current right wing of the American political spectrum. Dismissing facts as “fake news” is **not** a trivial exercise in hypersensitivity, as it’s sometimes been portrayed on platforms claiming to be “conservative.” Using that label is a full-on frontal attack on the very concept of informing the public – a task fundamental to the survival of a republican form of government.

    There are no “alternative facts.” There is truth, and there is falsehood, and there is a gray area in between that contains elements of both. Many a politician lives in that gray area, at least publicly, but we’ve never before had a national political party, and a presidential administration, so firmly committed to falsehood as are the current versions of the Republican Party (at the national level, at least) and the presidential administration now occupying the Oval Office.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/24/2018 - 12:20 pm.

      “I do not recall any previous attack on the media that came close to the hostility of the current administration” Do you recall any previous attacks on the president that came close to the hostility of today’s media?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/26/2018 - 09:28 am.

        Previous Attacks on the President

        You were in the US during the Obama years, correct? How about the Clinton years?

        The first President to be attacked viciously by the media was George Washington. Our history books like to tell us how revered he was by one and all, the American Cincinnatus who retired gracefully to his farm after his service. In reality, his second term saw anti-Washington clubs being formed, where toasts were drunk to his death (the Jay Treaty rubbed many the wrong way, it seems). This hostility was one factor of many that led him to retire.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/26/2018 - 10:53 pm.

          Yes, I was here during the Clinton presidency… and I can repeat: When 90% of media coverage is anti-Trump, it’s unprecedented.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/27/2018 - 11:40 am.

            To a hammer everything is a nail…And Trump is a hammer if ever there was one.

            I mean his poor character, womanizing, demanding “personal loyalty” from elected officials, willingness to brag without a clue, blatantly state mistruths and attack when questioned are so out of the norm that no wonder the press is kept busy. No wonder most of the coverage is deemed negative by you… 🙂

            Now I am okay with Trump’s policies for the most part, however I am not going to blame the press for noting when “this emperor is walking around naked”. I keeo praying that he learns professionalism, policy details, honesty and some humility, however a year in and that seems unlikely.

            • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/27/2018 - 08:08 pm.

              By no means I am defending Trump’s character… But if he is a hammer, so is the media now, except it has only one nail to pound all the time. The 90% number is not mine – it’s statistics We all would be much better off if the media pay attention to something other than Trump’s persona. We are not served well when we read that Trump had an affair with the UN ambassador or that he eats too many cheeseburgers…

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/28/2018 - 05:10 pm.


                First one has to note that you are citing a Right leaning publication who is citing research from an even more Right leaning organization. So their definition of “hostile” is likely suspect.

                If Trump blatantly lies / exaggerates as is his norm, and they fact check him is that hostile? If Trump pays hush money to a adult film star that he cheated on his wife with and they report it is that hostile? If his campaign meets with Russian operatives and they report it, is that hostile?

                Second, if Trump wants to garner positive coverage it is in his power to do so. He simply needs to be professional, positive, informed and honest. Unfortunately he is having a hard time growing out of his egotistical, attacking, lying, reactive, etc self. I keep hoping he can do so, but it is getting harder to keep the faith that that old dog can learn new tricks.

                From your link.
                “The working relationship between President Trump and the news media shows no signs of improving. Journalists continue to appear aggressively hostile toward the president, according to research released Tuesday by the Media Research Center, a conservative press watchdog.

                The new study of major broadcast coverage reveals that 90 percent of statements made by reporters and nonpartisan sources the last three months on ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts about Mr. Trump and his administration were negative.”

              • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/29/2018 - 09:05 am.

                We Would be Better Off . . .

                There are a lot of ways to finish that sentence.

                Yes, there is a lot of media coverage of Donald Trump. It’s for the simple reason that he is the President of the United States. The Presidency is a massive attention-suck: what goes on in and around the White House is not going to be ignored, nor should it be.

                “We are not served well when we read that Trump had an affair with the UN ambassador or that he eats too many cheeseburgers…” Actually, if there is that kind of thing going on in high government circles, I think it is something the public should know about (did he have an affair with Ambassador Haley? I always thought she had high ethical standards).

                “Too many cheeseburgers” is a matter of opinion.

  2. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/22/2018 - 09:08 pm.

    Interestingly, the media has about the same approval rating as Trump does… The difference is that at the time they pick on each other, one of them manages to still do something productive… On the other hand, what truth are we talking about if some truths are not welcome? It can also be noted that Democrats’ trust in the media is a proof that they see and hear there what they want to see and hear…

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/23/2018 - 09:37 am.

      The media???

      The media is 4 major broadcast networks, 20 plus cable new channels, thousands of newspapers and magazines and millions of web sites. The reality is that everybody gets to see and hear exactly what they want to see and hear.

      The two drivers of news content, if we set truth and honesty aside, are market share and political opinion: some want more money and other want more believers and the holy grail is both (see Ailes, Roger). And both can easily have a negative correlation with the truth. Our best hope to find an arbiter of the truth is likely the fact checking organizations: FactCheck and Politfact to name the prominent two.

      From PolitFact, analysis of statements made:

      True (10%)(17)
      Mostly True (12%)(20)
      Half True (18%)(31)
      Mostly False (21%)(35)
      False (30%)(50)
      Pants on Fire (16%)(9)

      True (12%)(18)
      Mostly True (22%)(32)
      Half True (24%)(35)
      Mostly False (21%)(30)
      False (17%)(25)
      Pants on Fire (3%)(5)

      FOX = True to 1/2 true, 40% of the time
      MSNBC= True to 1/2 true, 58% of the time

      Of course the naysayers will claim the factcheckers are all a liberal plot. A liberal plot facilitated by the Annenberg Foundation’s support for FactCheck. From Mr. Annenberg’s obituary:

      “An imposing figure with a courtly manner, a deep, resonant voice and the formal bearing of a royal chamberlain, Mr. Annenberg was a fervid patriot and Republican whose close friends included Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, to whom he gave considerable financial support.”

      Until we show a new found value for the truth and an equal disdain for lies the current mess will persist because the Left is a carrier and the Right has a full blown case of:

      “Why compromise when my facts tell me you are always wrong and I am always right.”

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/23/2018 - 10:39 pm.

        You are correct about the media but here is an example of how politicized the Politifact is. Here is their evaluation: and here are the actual facts: So no, you can’t trust them. I suggest you look for alternative sources for every fact and then compare them and make your own conclusion.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/24/2018 - 02:28 pm.


          The issue being addressed in the above example:

          Germany “is crime-riddled right now” because of migration to Europe according to Trump.

          Politifact states that Germany has 1/6 the murder rate as the US so the perception that violent crime is rampant and a threat to safety is not true. I assume this is based on if the U.S. voter compares their life experience with someone in Germany.

          Newsweek reports that violent crime is up 10% in Germany the previous year (similar to US).

          Do the math on this and prior to being “crime riddled” you were 83% safer in Germany than in the US and after “crime riddling” you are only 81% safer.

          If this is the best that can be done to describe “how politicized the Politifact is” we are OK…

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/25/2018 - 10:39 pm.

            Politifact said that “But the data suggest that the refugees tend to be better-behaved than the typical German,” which is apparently totally incorrect. On the other hand, crime rate is relative so what is normal in America, is not in Germany. But Trump’s main point was that unrestricted influx of people made situation much worse which it did so the rating was totally unjustified.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/23/2018 - 09:57 am.


      “…at the time they pick on each other, one of them manages to still do something productive…” I couldn’t agree more, and am very glad the media continue to at least attempt to do their job of serving the public, unlike the Current Occupant, who primarily serves himself and his cronies.

      Trust in the media has deteriorated across the board, not just in households where “conservative” thought is essentially the only type that’s welcomed. In recent years, the tendency to “silo,” and see, hear, and listen to only those sources with which we know we’re going to agree has increased dramatically. Some of that has taken place on the left, but far more is the result of massive infusions of right-wing money into numerous media platforms (e.g., the ‘Strib, FOX “news,” the web, &c.).

      For what it’s worth, I doubt that “the media” have ever been “objective” in any scientific-study sense of the term. What they were in past decades was “fair,” and lunatic views of the state of the world or remedies for national problems that were equally lunatic simply weren’t given air time or column inches in the local paper. Money from billionaires has changed all that. MSNBC may be reliably left of center, and MinnPost, too, on many days, but that ignores two things: First the number of media outlets purchased by those who like to call themselves “conservative” has swelled dramatically, and it’s easy to color “news” presentations so that they favor one view over the other in a way that reflects the views of the owner of the TV station or newspaper; and second, the center itself has shifted in the past couple of decades. What’s now considered “lunatic liberal” by a lot of commentators on the right used to be simply “politically moderate.” Much of the differing characterization – not all, but much of it – stems from differences of opinion on social issues.

      Aside from death and taxes, change is one of the few constants in society that we can count on, so opposing social changes for others (as opposed to not adopting them yourself) has much the flavor of standing on the sea shore and demanding that the tides do your bidding. It’s an exercise in futility. Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t marry someone of the same gender. Uncomfortable around transsexuals? Get over it, they’re here.. Opposed to something approaching racial or gender equality? Sorry, we don’t have the technology to take you back to the 17th century.

      One of the defining characteristics of humans is adaptability. Animals that can’t or won’t or don’t adapt don’t survive, and the fossil record is filled with examples. Learn to roll with the punches.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/24/2018 - 12:20 pm.

        “couldn’t agree more, and am very glad the media continue to at least attempt to do their job of serving the public” I do not see spending 90% of their time trying to undermine our president as doing the job of serving the public.

        “Some of that has taken place on the left, but far more is the result of massive infusions of right-wing money into numerous media platforms “ Do you have any statistics to back this up?

        “the number of media outlets purchased by those who like to call themselves “conservative” has swelled dramatically” Again, any evidence of this?

  3. Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 01/23/2018 - 08:44 am.


    Where are Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, now that we REALLY need them?

    As a certified geezer, I remember when “News” and :”Editorials” were separate things, and clearly labelled. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” If we cannot break free from the current taste for “alternative facts” we are truly lost.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/23/2018 - 12:06 pm.

    The question that bears investigation is, “who benefits from distrust of American institutions ?”

    The dismantling of trust is done with specific goals and beneficiaries.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/23/2018 - 02:04 pm.

    The Truth is a Fleeting Virtue

    Truth is a very fleeting virtue when the President finds the truth to be nothing but an annoyance. Republicans, for decades, have repeated fiction and repeated fiction until it becomes assumed to be fact, when it isn’t. Reference the ACA, the Republicans got caught with their pants on fire when they had nothing.The alternate universe the Republicans run in only listens to what best serves them. Republicanism is a contrarian society. If it isn’t contrary to conventional thinking, then it must not be the truth. Republicans use an Australian, Rupert Murdock, as their truth guru. Murdock fills the airwaves with the likes of Hannity who is controversial only for his own good. Rush Limbaugh, self-proclaimed entertainer, has Republican politicians apologizing to him if they stray from Limbaugh’s version of Republicanism. Everyone including politicians stray from the truth. It is those whose who knowingly stray to serve their own purpose that do the most damage. Unfortunately, many of those choosing this route are politicians. If the real truth gets in the Republicans way they resort to obstructionism.

  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/23/2018 - 04:26 pm.

    I’m sorry, I can’t help myself…

    No topic drives me to distraction more than this one.

    The most sincere and heartfelt aspirations we have in life are likely for our children. Given that, consider this question:

    In my child’s life I hope their relationship with the truth is:

    A. A consistent effort to be truthful with an understanding that mistakes can be made.
    B. The occasional lie is OK if it furthers a just cause.
    C. Determined persistence towards a goal takes preference over the truth.
    D. The truth is always optional to immediate needs.

    I may be twisted here; but, I believe 90% plus go with answer A. Truth is a universal virtue that, in theory, is valued by almost everyone; yet, we see flagrant untruths given a pass for no reason other than the discomfort of pointing them out.

    A great example of this is the Inauguration crowd lie from Trump. Easily verified and indisputably a lie. What if FOX came right out and essentially stated:

    “Mr. President, you’re our guy, we have your back on the issues of the day; but, this is simply wrong and if we are to continue to support you, you must fix this with an apology and/or correction”.

    FOX defends a universal virtue which deflects most criticism, and Trump get’s a first shot across the Presidential bow that Presidential lying can have greater consequences than non-Presidential lying and a little more care must be taken going forward. A good thing.

    OK, I get that the previous two sentences reflect a very, VERY, Pollyannish view on things; but, why? We almost all agree on the virtue of truth; yet, casually throw it away for expedience, especially political expedience.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/23/2018 - 10:54 pm.

      “Truth is a universal virtue that, in theory, is valued by almost everyone; yet, we see flagrant untruths given a pass for no reason other than the discomfort of pointing them out.” Very true. And I have plenty of examples which are much more damaging than the inauguration crowd size.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/24/2018 - 07:56 am.

        Absolutely agree…

        2140 Of them in the President’s first year in office (Washington Post).

        The Kareem Abdul Jabbar of lying….

  7. Submitted by John Appelen on 01/27/2018 - 11:58 am.

    The Good News

    It is very likely that the trust will return if and when the Democratic Party is in charge again. My logic is simple, Conservatives distrust the bureaucrats, politicians and public employees no matter who is in charge. They simply understand that people waste more when it is not their money they are spending.

    Where as the Liberals are simply having crisis of trust because the Conservatives are in control. As soon as the pendulum goes back to people they support increasing regulations and spending money, their trust will come back quickly.

    As for news quality, I find the all sides ratings useful.

    The outlets that earn a “C” (for Center) seem the most reliable. (ie NPR, PBS, BBC, CNN, Politico, etc) Though I do make a habit of checking out the LL’s and RR’s occasionally to see what the Left and Right sources are saying.

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 01/27/2018 - 12:03 pm.

    By the way, I am in Beijing this weekend. So I am very thankful for our non-stop political chaos and multiple news sources… Here everything is whatever the government media says it is…

    The world is much simpler for my friends and business partners, they don’t have to be concerned about welfare, defense, immigration, taxes, etc because it is being taken care of by someone else. 🙂 And their benevolent oligarchy has accomplished some incredible things here.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/27/2018 - 04:20 pm.

    Actually, this looks like garbage analysis.

    This isn’t a peer reviewed reports and it contains a lot of funky assumptions. This is market research designed to produce “trust building” branding objectives, it’s not really an attempt to understand trust levels or tell us anything about “truth”.

    I see many methodological issues with the methodology. For instance the “informed” group:

    “Must meet 4 criteria:

    1) Ages 25-64
    2) College educated
    3) In top 25% of household income per age
    group in each country
    4) Report significant media consumption and
    engagement in business news”

    This is obviously a consumer demographic, not a legitimate cohort of people with above average “knowledge” or levels of information. There’s no reason to assume to that people from wealthier households who “consume” more media, specially “business” news, are actually better informed than everyone else. In fact, one could argue that such a group is less informed.

    This is an internet survey, not a random sample. Obviously limiting the sample to those who have internet access obviously skews the sample in a number of ways.

    If you make garbage assumptions you will collect garbage data. When you ask people whether they “trust” the media for instance, are you asking them whether or not they trust the news sources they rely on, or are you asking them whether or not they think the news sources other people rely on are trustworthy? “Media” is not a monolithic entity, it’s several different entities. Edelman does a little breakdown, for instance they try to separate “journalism” from what they call “platforms” such as social media, but the sample selection (i.e. internet users) will obviously skew those results.

    You have the same problem with questions about “government”, what IS “government”? What is an NGO, or a CEO? It’s probably a bad idea to assume that every respondent is working with the same concepts. Does someone who “trusts” Trump but doesn’t “trust” the FBI have a high level of distrust?

    I’m not sure we can claim that this “study” really tells us very much.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/27/2018 - 04:38 pm.

    Anyways, is this loss of “trust” really bad thing?

    One could argue that it’s actually quite healthy and ultimately more productive for a population to recognize that it’s institutions have become untrustworthy. Low trust levels in and of themselves aren’t inherently “dangerous” if they reflect accurate and reliable perceptions.

    Power in a democratic society isn’t just about high levels of citizen “trust”, it’s supposed be about having institutions that CAN BE trusted. The Edelman assumption is that low levels of trust are bad regardless of the actual trustworthiness of the institutions being relied on. Some would argue that a disconnect of any kind between the level of “trust” and the degree of trustworthiness is the real danger.

    I would argue that the institutions under scrutiny have earned the distrust they’ve provoked in a variety of ways and merely “branding” themselves as more trustworthy is just adding more mirrors and smoke. If the institutional response is to respond to the demand for trustworthy conduct, by actually becoming more trustworthy, that’s the way free and democratic societies are supposed to function. I would say that our institutions want the trust, without having to be trustworthy as if they can “brand” their way out of this. THAT’s the REAL crises.

    Despite it flaws one interesting finding in the Edelman report is that respondents worry about distinguishing between real and fake news. I find that encouraging because it would seem to indicate that people want to be responsible for locating accurate information. That might reflect a sorely need impulse towards integrity that has been languishing for decades.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/29/2018 - 10:31 am.

    “Objectivity” and trust

    I actually the “objective” style of reporting ended up undermining trust in the media in a variety of ways.

    “Objectivity” isn’t a existential possibility, it’s just a style of reporting that become prevalent in the 50’s as television networks discovered that viewers responded well to that style. One problem with the reliance on the objective style is that “consumers” came to expect and demand it to the point where style displaced substance. The consumer demand for “objectivity” created hyper-sensitivities that labeled any lapse of objectivity an expression of bias. As the consumer demand for “unbiased” reporting intensified, the “media” responded by “balancing” reliable sources with unreliable sources thus denigrating its own reliability in order to service the appearance of objectivity. This created a feedback loop of self censorship that frequently serviced the elite and the status quo in a variety of ways. This also created a double bind for “mainstream” journalism; if they reported susbtance- i.e. Nixon is liar… they were accused of bias. If they withheld that information in order to preserve the appearance of objectivity, there were withholding critical information and failing their mission to provide reliable reporting.

    As the expectation of objectivity was revealed as little more than a branding exercise people started realizing that “media” was really a hodge podge of more or less reliable reporting from disparate sources. One could argue that the branding of journalism as “objective” contained the seeds of it’s own downfall.

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