If Trust in the Media is Down, is that Bias? Or Paranoia?

Trust in the Media is Down.  Again, still, more. Gallup is out with a new poll, showing that 60% of the US population “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”

Strikingly, 58% of Democrats indicate a “great deal or fair amount of trust” in mass media – the comparable number for Republicans is only 26%.

The party line is that the fault lies with the media, that media needs to be and be seen as more trustworthy.  Here is Gallup’s own version of that line:

Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other.

No, Gallup, not clear at all. In fact, far from it.

Trust, Trusting and Being Trusted

Gallup’s right about one thing: the media continues to miss a simple distinction–that between trust, trusting and being trusted. Simply put:

  1. To trust, a verb, is to willingly put oneself in harm’s way of another
  2. Being trusted, or trustworthiness, is a noun – a characteristic of the one being trusted
  3. Trust, also a noun, is the result of one party trusting, and the other party being trusted.

Every time you see a headline like this one – US Distrust in Media Hits New High – you can bet you’re seeing data about #3. But the commentary frequently assumes the data means #2.  In other words, this article and many others confuses “trust” with “trustworthiness.”

Suppose you have 10 customers who trust you. You could say the level of trust between you and your customers is high.

Now suppose you get five new customers, all of whom are highly suspicious people, hence are suspicious of you, even though you’ve done nothing different. You could say the level of trust has declined. But not because of any change in your trustworthiness.

The question is: if trust is down, is that because the trustee is less trustworthy? Or because the trustor is less inclined to trust?

The Tyranny of Metrics

Like the drunk who looked for his keys under the streetlamps not because he lost it there, but because there was more light, it’s tempting to measure trust, because that’s easier than measuring trustworthiness or the propensity to trust. But that’s unfortunate – because if all you can say about trust is that it’s up or down, you can’t say why that’s so. And if you can’t say why that’s so, you can’t develop sensible policies to affect it.

Metrics do exist, by the way, for both trustworthiness and for the propensity to trust.  At a corporate level, Trust Across America provides a sound definition of trustworthiness, and data for all publicly traded US companies.  At a personal level, the Trust Quotient from Trusted Advisor Associates does the same.

One of the oldest and most establish trust metrics comes from the General Social Survey, which has tracked for 40 years the answers to a few questions about the propensity to trust strangers.  One of academia’s most respected trust scholars, Dr. Eric Uslaner, writes mainly about the propensity to trust and the increase in distrust.

Next time you read an article asserting that “trust is down,” ask yourself – which side moved?

Trust in Media

The Gallup data show that Democrats with high trust in media went from 65% to 58% – a 10.8% decline. By contrast, Republicans went from 39% to 26% – a 33% decline. Whether you believe the trustworthiness of the media went up, down or sideways, it seems clear that the propensity to trust of one group went down more than another.

What does low propensity to trust mean? Eric Uslaner sums it up: people who trust others tend to be optimistic about the world, and to believe they have some control over their destinies. People who distrust, by contrast, tend to believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and that others (“those people”) are responsible.  If you see a parallel between the two major parties, may I suggest it’s no accident.

So when Gallup concludes, “Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans,” I respectfully disagree. The purveyors of cynicism often have a lot more responsibility to bear for fomenting distrust and negativity.

When trust is down, who moved? Sometimes it’s the trustor, not the trustee.

4 replies
  1. C Peter Hutchinson
    C Peter Hutchinson says:

    Which side moved first? I think the electorate is consumed with distrust of anything not within their power to control. Such voters become “undecided” as their principles erode.

    The erosion begins early in life; a fabric of sensitivity to other’s needs and wishes fades between the ear and the mouth; parties to the centers of our own self-focused universe start to look as if they are demeaning our pride.

    The black hole effect is self-fulfilling prophecy. Doubt and you will be doubted. Black out on logic, and your logic will fail you. Fail to fill a vacuum, and the vacuum fills you.

    Not to be pessimistic, what is the solution to lack of trusting another human, or the natural physics of interaction? Be honest with yourself, doubt what is untrue, heal what is wounded, and open doors for the disabled.

  2. Ron
    Ron says:

    The three definitions you provide are common sense. The thesis of your arguement requires some clarification…. are you trying to say that you believe the media has little or no fault in a decline in the trust placed with them, that they still have the same/similar basic amount of trustworthiness (which you appear to think is high), and that the negativity of one party (republicans) is mostly to blame?

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:


      Thanks for affirming the commonsense nature of those distinctions. It’s surprising to me that they are not more observed.

      I don’t have the data to make a firm case, but I can say this:

      1. The media may or may not have declined in trustworthiness: Gallup doesn’t provide any data on this question;

      2. I don’t make any claim that the press operates at a high level of trustworthiness;

      3. There has been a general, gradual decline in the US in the propensity to trust, as measured by the GSS;

      4. Republicans have declined more than Democrats in their propensity to trust (Gallup). I would argue also that Republicans have beenmore negative than Democrats in recent years, but that’s just my subjective view.

      So – given the lack of data, all we can say is that the loss in trust may be partly due to trustworthiness, and almost certainly due in part to a lower propensity to trust (varying in degree by political affiliation).

      How much is due to less trusting and how much to lower trustworthiness should be the million dollar question. I’d love to see Gallup explore that one.

  3. Richard Moroney
    Richard Moroney says:

    Charlie, What timeframe was the decline in trust measured? They seem very large for both sides of the aisle if it is a year-on-year measure. My feeling is that much of the media has been in decline for about 20 years, and would point to Ted Turner’s being booted from CNN as a turning point for the industry. The declines seem low if it is a 20 year measure… I like your comparison definitions of trust, trustworthy and being trusted. It is a problem of common language terms that they are easily confused. Do you have a visual cue, or short story, that could help to quickly clarify the differences? I’m thinking of a similar issue we have in quality processes, where accuracy, precision and repeatability are often confused–by showing a target with arrows appropriately scattered around, a team can quickly understand each term and their distinctions. Cheers, Richard


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