US public trust in institutions plummeted in 2017, global survey finds

  1. Media is least-trusted sector
  2. 'Experts' are recovering reputation

Public trust in U.S. government, media, and other institutions fell sharply during the first year of Donald J. Trump’s controversial presidency, according to the latest edition of an annual global survey.

Edelman, an international public relations firm, said that U.S. public confidence suffered the biggest fall since the group began its annual “Trust Barometer” study of attitudes in 2001.

The annual report, released on January 21, surveyed 1,150 people in 28 countries, with more than 33,000 responses. It then broke their answers down by sector, and whether the respondent is considered a “general” or “informed” member of the public.

Among the “informed public” of the U.S. survey, trust fell to the bottom of the global rankings.

Overall, the U.S. general public gave their institutions – government, media, business, and NGOs – 43 out of 100 on the “trust index.” This represents a nine-point fall from 52 in 2017, the year when Edelman said trust was “in crisis” around the world.

A large part of this fall comes from a 14-point drop in the U.S. general public’s trust in government. Only 33 percent of people said they trust the U.S. government, falling from 47 percent in 2017.

“The United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust,” said Richard Edelman, head of the public relations firm.

In a statement, Edelman said that the drop in public trust in the U.S. is particularly striking because it cannot be tied to a major disaster or economic decline, factors which usually explain falls in trust.

“The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse,” said Edelman.

Trust among Chinese people in their institutions rose the most, with trust in the Chinese government rising from 76 percent in 2017 to 84 percent.

Edelman has been publishing its annual global survey since 2001. The year-on-year changes are seen as a way of discerning confidence in core democratic institutions.

Edelman’s Tonia Ries told WikiTribune that the purpose of separating “informed” from general public is to find “opinion leaders”.

Apparently arbitrary distinctions such as college education, age, and a high-income bracket are useful parameters to find people likely to be in a position to influence others, she said.

Ries acknowledged that “the rise of social platforms led to a dispersion of authority and a shift of influence to peer voices”. However maintaining the research parameters established in 2000 means the results can better demonstrate global trends and changes.

President Trump has regularly been accused of stoking distrust in the media. On January 17, he named the recipients of the “Fake News Awards,” sarcastic accolades for allegedly dishonest reporting about his government.

Barometer-in-brief

Last year’s barometer found that Americans’ trust in the media was at an all-time low. Distrust in media and government had been a core theme of the 2016 election, with both much higher among Trump voters than supporters of his rival Hillary Clinton.

As in that 2017 barometer, this new survey shows that trust and distrust in the media is split along party lines, with a 34-point difference between Trump voters, 27 percent of whom trust the media, compared with Clinton voters, whose trust in media reached 61 percent.

Globally, the media was found to be the least trusted of the sectors surveyed, ranking lower than government, business, and NGOs.

However, while trust in media “platforms” broadly declined from 53 percent to 51 percent, trust in “journalism” enjoyed a boost, rising five points on its 2017 rating, to 59 percent.

This fitted with a broader pattern globally, with participants appearing to become more discerning in who they pay attention to, a return, Edelman said, to faith in experts.

In contrast, the number of people who said they would trust the views of people like themselves fell to an all-time low, from 60 percent in 2017 to 54 percent.

While 63 percent said they do not know how to tell good journalism from “fake news,” 59 percent said it is becoming harder to tell the difference.

Finally, the report recommends that countries where trust fell dramatically, such as the U.S., India, Colombia, and Brazil, should “guard information quality” and “drive economic prosperity” to reignite public trust.

Edelman CEO Richard Edelman will present the results of the study at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 22.

Polling group Pew released similar research on January 18. It found that there is a global consensus that media should not favor one political party over another. Pew’s research found that partisanship was the biggest problem most people have with their media.

Pew also found that people in the U.S. were the most dissatisfied with the partisan coverage provided by their media, chiming with Edelman’s findings that public trust in the media (or at least media platforms) in the U.S. continues to decline year-on-year.

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