Why are Americans losing trust in power? It’s complicated, new report says

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By Austin R. Ramsey

Empathy, fairness and ethics are among the values that shape Americans’ measure of trust in public officials, and that trust, according to a new Pew Research Center report, continues to decline.

The study found that Americans share nuanced views on which trust-building factors are important for which institutions, meaning the keys to winning them over — at the ballot box or elsewhere — may not be easy.

“Trust is a variegated phenomenon; it’s not sort of this black-and-white, on-and-off, all-or-nothing proposition,” said Lee Rainie, a lead author on the new report. “The trust story is an interesting and complex one rather than a simple one that is solved by a couple of simple fixes in these institutions. It’s a much more interesting but complicated story than that.”

Rainie and his colleagues used a survey of more than 10,500 members of the center’s American Trends Panel to measure public confidence in members of Congress, local elected officials, K-12 public school principals, journalists, military leaders, police officers, leaders of technology companies and religious leaders. 

For the most part, respondents gave military leaders, public school principals and police officers relatively high marks but ranked members of Congress and tech leaders lower.

That’s been a common theme among Americans dating back nearly 20 years, Rainie said. What’s new, he added, is how variable trust-building factors shape confidence.

“This is the very first time that we’ve ever asked questions in quite this way, and it was built around the insight that people have different judgments — depending on what institution and group you ask about — they have different judgments about what the dimension of their performance you’re asking about, and they clearly have different views about the broad institutions and societies.”

Experience, age, race, ethnicity and political opinions still play a role. The research supports an emerging trend: Republicans and Republican-leaning voters disproportionately distrust the media and journalists.

Only 31% of Republicans and Republican leaners believed reporters “fairly cover all sides of an issue at least some of the time,” according to the report, while 74% of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic party say the same. 

Rainie said Pew’s journalism and media division has been using such data to scrutinize a troubling partisan divide.

“In a way, what we found in that unit’s research, as well as this research that broadly looks at trust, is that partisanship is sometimes a very powerful lens through which people are judging the information they get as well as the performance of the institutions they’re looking at,” he said.

Ethics proved notably important to the research, too. The survey found that unethical behavior translates to poor judgments about job performance.

Americans who thought members of Congress act unethically “all or most of the time” were far less likely to believe that those elected representatives genuinely care about the people they represent.

Conversely, the number of Americans who believed that ethical behavior is well-enforced proved low.

Rainie, whose recent work has primarily focused on the issue of public trust, said the variability of trust is something everyone should understand.

“Trust is essential to humans getting along with each other and transacting business with each other,” he said. “It makes both social relationships and economic relationships occur. Trust in institutions is an essential element of how societies govern themselves or how societies fall apart.”