What the Ohio train derailment teaches us about poisoning public trust
Champion of Truth
“any honest assessment would find today’s newspapers more timely and accurate, fairer, and often better-written than the newspapers of 1979.”
“Citing a near-universal decline in institutional confidence isn’t an attempt to offer an excuse for newspapers. But it illustrates the pervasiveness of public colic over American life and society, and suggests the institutions might not have changed as much as the perceptions of them have. The best explanation for the uniform drops might be that we’re living in an age of heightened criticism and scrutiny that leaves no faults or blemishes unnoticed compared to earlier eras.”
“Another possible reason the press might have lost confidence: Reporting has not just become more critical in the past 40 years, but it’s also started covering topics it left largely untouched in earlier times. As Matthew Pressman wrote in his 2018 book, On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, as recently as the early 1960s, newspapers largely ignored matters of race, sex, class and inequity, topics that can make some readers squirm. There weren’t many stories about gender or trans issues in 1979. Other sacred cows, like organized religion, get much more scrutiny today than they did yesterday.”
“Yet does the public really have such a low opinion of newspapers? Gallup’s wording of its question is pretty vague. It didn’t ask respondents to rate the specific newspapers they read but to express their levels of confidence in the newspaper as an institution. They might have gotten a more positive answer if they had asked people how they feel about the daily newspaper they actually read. When the Pew Research Center asked this question in 2005, they found that 80 percent of Americans give favorable ratings to their daily. Local TV news, cable news and network TV news are rated only slightly worse. Granted, that’s data from a 17-year-old survey, but it shows that asking a slightly different question about the press can produce a startlingly different answer.”
“The national poll, conducted on behalf of our two organizations by Impact Research, shows that only four in 10 Americans at least somewhat trust the federal government to do what is right. For all the concern about the rise of anti-democratic movements or unfair laws that could be used to steal an election, that disheartening statistic strikes at the heart of our nation’s primary democratic institution and its ability to deal with social, economic and foreign policy challenges. If you don’t trust your government, does it really matter what policies it pursues?”
“At least four basic responses from our leaders are needed, according to the polling — making visible the work of career civil servants, distinguished from the political leadership; emphasizing the ways government works on behalf of all; continuing to reform government so it is most effective and efficient; and then telling those stories to break the negative cycle.
When people don’t trust their government, they are more likely to opt out of voting and other types of civic participation. With less engagement, the public feels less empowered to influence government — and, in turn, government “hears” their needs and preferences less. This creates a mistrust loop: Diminished trust in government leads to a disengaged public, resulting in inefficient, unresponsive or unaccountable institutions, and that leads to further deterioration of trust and national progress.”
“Some of the public distrust over the years has been driven by controversial wars, policy blunders, mismanagement and political malfeasance, but a good deal is the result of a lack of information or an inability to differentiate the activities of elected political leaders from the critical services provided by federal agencies and the two million civil servants located across the country.
The public’s expectations and trust are often shaped by personal experiences. People applying for financial aid for college, visiting a national park, seeking assistance after a hurricane or going through airport security may be the only lenses through which they may see our government in action.
The new polling shows that positive experiences build goodwill and trust, but even a single negative interaction can have a lasting impact on people’s faith in government and democratic institutions.”
“Truth decay encompasses four trends, each of which is relevant to what we’re experiencing now.
The first is increasing disagreement about facts and data. An example in this context would be the disagreement about the safety of vaccines and whether people will take them once they’re made and distributed.
The second trend is the increased blurring of the line between fact and opinion. This is caused a lot by commentary in cable news or social media, places where facts and opinion are mixed together and make it really hard to determine what’s real and what’s someone’s opinion or analysis.
The third trend is the increasing volume of opinion compared to fact. You’re just seeing a lot more opinion out there. If you’re looking for facts, you have to work pretty hard to dig through all that commentary before you can actually find the raw facts you might be looking for.
Finally, declining trust in key institutions that provide information. We’re experiencing this now with the government and the media.
Put together, people are not sure what’s true what’s not, and they don’t even really know where to turn to find factual information they’re looking for.”
“Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, seems to be the guy providing the media and the public with the necessary facts about the coronavirus right now. But because the president undercuts him and disagrees with a lot of what he says, he’s become somewhat of a polarizing figure. If you’re a Trump fan, you might not be a Fauci fan, and vice versa.
At such a crucial time, how is the expertise of someone like Fauci or other public health experts not innately trusted?”
“people like to confirm their own beliefs. They don’t necessarily want to hear information that disagrees with their views, and it leads people to reject information from experts that doesn’t fit their narrative.”
“I’m skeptical this moment will lead to only facts coming from the top and an extra effort from the bottom to seek facts. Tens of thousands of Americans have died, millions have fallen ill, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a change. The US isn’t rising to the moment.”
“this is a national failure because it prevents us from making progress on the big issues that our country needs to confront if we want to continue being a prosperous nation and maintain the position we have in the world.”
“over the last several decades, conservatives have waged war on social and political trust, calling into question the fairness and independence of almost every major US institution from journalism to academia to science. They have created parallel institutions of their own, meant to support their factional interests. And they have relentlessly cast “libs” as an enemy within — an alien, hostile, and ultimately illegitimate force.
As a result, a large faction of the country has descended into paranoia and conspiracy theories, fighting intensely against the basic rules, norms, and post-war assumptions of American life. And because that faction has successfully rendered all political fights — even fights over basic facts — as vicious, zero-sum partisan struggles, another large faction of the country has simply tuned out, coming to regard politics and public life generally as corrupt and fruitless. Americans’ trust in their institutions and in one another is at record lows.”
“it works against the left’s purposes. The left needs for voters to believe that effective, responsive governance is possible — that we can, in fact, have nice things. The left needs social and political trust. Without them, collective action for collective benefit, the left’s stock in trade, becomes impossible.
This is the left’s challenge in the US: how to break out of the doom loop and get on a trajectory of better governance and rising trust.”