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Declining trust got you down? Don’t get depressed, get busy

An interesting Los Angeles Times headline came across my feed the other day:   

Poll: California Voters Agree Political Disinformation Is a Big Problem. But How to Fix It?”   

This article has it all: increased spread of disinformation; decreasing public trust; the self-fulfilling prophecies of voter turnout; negative responses to both mainstream and social media; where people get their information and news; and the surprising, reconstituted return of the term “pink slime!”   

The headlined poll, which the University of California Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies conducted, was funded, in part, by The Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. The LA Times reports that the poll found, “Alongside the pervasiveness of misinformation is a great distrust of information of any kind, good or bad. Fifty-eight percent of voters generally have a low level of trust in political and election information they get from the mainstream media.”   

Think about it — no matter what news we get, we tend to doubt it. For example, how many times have you turned to a friend or partner and said, “Do you think that’s true?”   

While disinformation tactics that lead to distrust aren’t new, it’s important to note that disinformation and distrust are being deliberately spread as part of a political effort to undermine civil and governmental institutions and to get Americans to distrust one another.    

“Trust used to be a lot like oxygen, like it used to be kind of ambient,” the article quotes Anna Brugmann, policy director at the advocacy organization Rebuild Local News. She continued, “Trust in all institutions has decreased exponentially. And that relates to local news, and it relates to national news; but it also relates to government, institutions of higher education — all those other institutions that make a healthy civic environment. … So, we can’t count on ambient trust anymore.” (Ambient trust is such an interesting term. Also, FYI, Rebuild Local News is the group bringing back pink slime.)  

Findings like these can make restoring trust a big challenge but not impossible. With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Spitfire is looking into what social science says about trust and what can be done. Spoiler alert: Despite the headline, the LA Times article doesn’t include any solutions. But you know Spitfire — we have some early ideas to share. Here are three things you can start trying today:   

First, organizations must understand which moral norms are important to the communities they want to have high-trust relationships with, and they must act on and regularly communicate those norm commitments.   

Second, if trust is broken either through bad faith or competing values, moral repair is necessary. Acknowledge that those who were wronged are rational to see this as an issue and cannot be expected to just forget about it. Repair includes acknowledging wrongdoing, holding wrongdoers accountable and reinforcing shared moral norms. 

Third, learn from others how to build trust.This report from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement shows us what’s working for media organizations. It makes the case for outlets to “explain your process” for reporting. Show what you are doing to live up to expectations rather than just announcing you are. In the UT report, newsrooms explain what steps they take to report a story and make it fair. That’s a step further and better than just saying they cover things fairly.  

Give proof.  Show your work. By the way, did you know The New York Times has a “Trust Team?” The Trust Team’s research found that readers trust journalism more when they know the process of how it was produced.  

Most of us probably know from personal experience how hard it is to repair broken trust. It takes time, and it takes work, but it can be done. It must be done for the good of all. Spitfire will share more of our findings soon; until then, let’s get busy restoring civic trust wherever we can. You know what they say: The best time to plant a tree is now.   


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided support for this deep dive. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s views. 

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 24, 2023 at 08:57 am and is filed under Brand identity and strategy, Campaign planning and Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.