Our new commission will examine the causes and consequences of the nation’s crippling cynicism, what should be done and how journalism can help.
Thriving democracies require a strong base of both trust and distrust of government. To govern effectively, leaders need citizens to trust that they are honest and competent. To earn that trust, governments need to be open and accountable to citizens, traditionally helped by the watchdog role of a free press.
There has been a near steady decline of public trust in American democratic institutions for more than 40 years. In 1964, 76% of respondents to the American National Election Studies survey had faith in the government to do what is right “always” or “most” of the time. After the Watergate saga, trust in the government went down to 36%, and in 2015 it was only 19%. The figures are worse when asking Democrats how much they trust Republicans to run the government and vice versa.
Last year, confidence in the presidency declined to 36%, while for the Congress, confidence was at the all-time low of 9%. (Of course, the numbers are significantly better when people are asked about their particular member of Congress.)
A similar pattern has emerged for almost all major institutions in our society. Except for the military and police, fewer than half of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in their institutions, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. Specifically, 41% have confidence in the church or organized religion, 27% in banks and 18% in big business.
Trust in the news media has dropped precipitously as well: 20% for newspapers and 21% for television news, both significant decreases since 1994. And confidence in news on the Internet has declined to 17% (down from 21% in 1999).
Even trust in our democratic system is waning. In 1995, the World Values Survey found that one in 15 Americans approved of “having the army rule.” More recently, that number grew to one in six. And this dissatisfaction with government has obvious parallels in other parts of the world.
We’ve gone from healthy skepticism to crippling cynicism.
There is a wide disparity of opinion as to what has caused these trends in attitudes, and even wider in what can or should be done about it. From our very different perspectives as leaders of institutions in New York and in Tennessee, we agree that the news media can play a crucial role in the solution. After all, to quote Ronald Reagan, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, as Jefferson cautioned, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”
Media, once seen as providing a common set of facts, even for political foes, have atomized in the digital age to the point where everyone can find their own customized set of facts. Business disruption has left large parts of the country without reliable local news, while large swathes of the information landscape are occupied by misinformation, driven by politics, profit or propaganda.
The proliferation of media outlets and sources of information, the proclivity by some to write knowingly false but “clickable” stories, the expansion of social media, reductions in newsrooms driven mostly by the declining revenues of traditional news entities, politicization of the news, and a general polarization in society are just a few of the phenomena that are either fostering institutional mistrust or a result of it.
To address these issues, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has partnered with the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program to create a new Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, of which we are the co-chairs.
The aim of the commission is to examine the causes and consequences of a decline in trust in democratic institutions, with a focus on trust in the media, journalism and the information ecosystem. We aim specifically to identify the perennial and emerging values and social obligations that should guide those who produce, distribute and consume news and information to ensure a functioning democracy.
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After we explore the topic over the coming year, we will recommend solutions that will likely address what news entities, social media platforms and citizens can do to foster a vibrant information ecology and ultimately a flourishing democracy.
Those are tall orders. A non- or bipartisan group of diverse citizens from media, education, business and the arts will spend the coming year addressing these questions with the aim of reporting to the American public late next year. This process will begin at the New York Public Library on Oct. 12, and continue with meetings in California, Wisconsin, Colorado and elsewhere over the next 12 months.
As co-chairs, we come from different political parties and an array of political views. But we and the rest of the commission believe this issue is bigger than our political beliefs and affiliations. Indeed, we hope to move away from old political labels. One commentator has suggested that the world of today breaks down into institutionalists and insurrectionists. Other analyses suggest that issues are either in the realm of consensus or deviance from the norm. However we end up framing the issues and their causes, it will be a difficult quest, but a most important one.
This project will not be the only activity aimed at addressing ways to increase trust, when warranted, and a healthy distrust when it isn’t. Nor should it be. But it will be our part in trying to restore healthy blood platelets into the democratic bloodstream, something we all need to preserve our country’s health in the years ahead.
Anthony Marx is president of the New York Public Library. Jamie Woodson, a former Tennessee state senator, is executive chairman and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. They are co-chairs of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. Joanne Lipman, the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY, is a member of the commission.
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