The journalists’ uncertain role in fading public trust
“Healthy skepticism is good for democracy,” and “trust is necessary for the well-functioning of the political system.” Such ambiguous arguments are often raised when the media, politicians and scholars express their concern about shrinking trust in public institutions. It is true that countries such as the U.S. face a steadily decline of trust – though we cannot find this trend all around the globe, e.g., not in Germany (Hooghe & Zmerli, 2011).
So, why are they concerned about it? Should we all be? And what is the media’s role?
Firstly, scholars and politicians are concerned because trust in institutions is understood as fundamental for democracy: it is the glue that binds individual citizens together to build a society and connect them to the institutions (Mishler & Rose, 2001). However, low voter turnout, protests and demonstrations, or the assignment of petitions, are manifestations of political dissatisfaction. Simultaneously, this kind of skepticism or dissatisfaction ignites democratic development and progress.
But how do we learn about all this?
It is the media that brings these developments and expressions of disaffection to the public. By means of their coverage, journalists contribute to a debate within the democratic society. It is their role to criticize and monitor. At the same time, political actors and their institutions are often portrayed with skepticism and cynicism. In short, media coverage is perceived as unfavorable for politics. Because of this, one might argue that news coverage triggers negative attitudes towards politics (Becker & Whitney, 1980).
If media coverage is partly held responsible for the loss of trust in public institutions, doesn’t it become crucial to focus on the media’s perspective? What role do journalists actually play in this context?
We know that trust is indeed important for what people do – or don’t do – in their everyday life. Trust influences how we interact and behave. In general, we base all our decisions on whether we trust or mistrust on previous experiences (Petermann, 2013). We know that journalists differ from the public in regard to their political trust-levels, depending on the national context (Hanitzsch & Berganza, 2014). Reasons for this discrepancy are traceable: journalists encounter political institutions on a regular basis; they share experiences with them and have relationships with politicians. Thus, the journalists’ lessons learned are different from those of the public.
Nevertheless, mutual trust or distrust is important to journalists – probably even in regard to professional norms and behavior. For instance, a study on Israeli journalists found that those reporters that are more trusting and perceive high audience trust identify themselves more with journalistic norms such as neutrality (Tsfati, 2004). Such an effect is also assumable for the politician-journalist relationship.
Thus, do journalists report differently when they trust or distrust public institutions and politicians?
Research on the journalists’ perspective on trust has often been neglected, so that we cannot give an accurate answer to this question yet. No matter if trust is good or bad for democracy, media are often held responsible for its decline. There is clearly the need to shed light on journalists’ trust and its connection to the production of news media coverage. This becomes especially important when assuming that negativity and cynicism in media coverage has a negative effect on the civic society.
About the author:
Nina Steindl is a research associate and PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research at LMU Munich. For her PhD dissertation, she focuses on the issue of political trust and journalism in Germany.