Law and Politics People and Community

The public continues to lose trust in major institutions—and each other

The growing trend is dangerous because it can erode democratic values and make solving the United States’ problems more difficult, according to political scientists.
New York, streets. High buildings and crowd walking stock photo

Americans continue to lose trust in many of their major institutions. Polls show that whether it is the media, Congress, or elected officials, there is a growing trend: the public no longer trusts the actions or words of many entities.

This trend is dangerous, experts concur, because it can erode  democratic values and makes solving the nation’s problems more difficult.

A 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that Americans think the public’s trust has been declining not only in the federal government but in each other as well. Although 64 percent of those polled said that low trust in the government made solving the nation’s problems more difficult, 84 percent believe that this lack of trust can be turned around.

Several University of Miami faculty experts weigh in on this trend.

The public trust in our institutions is on a downward trend—whether it is government, elected officials, the media, or even each other. Why is this happening?

Sallie Hughes, professor and associate dean for Global Initiatives, School of Communication: Lack of trust is linked to poor performance. Inequality has been growing in the U.S. and around the world. Other issues—such as climate change—are not being adequately addressed. When people sense they are not advancing, resources are being distributed unfairly, policy is failing, and/or leaders are benefiting unfairly or unethically, distrust increases.

Communication is also a part of this, but not the only reason. Populist discourses that pit the people against the oligarchy amplify dissatisfaction with institutions and may redirect trust, or something like it, toward individual leaders.

Cecily Cooper, associate professor, Miami Herbert Business School: In the last couple of years, political ideology is being used as a very salient category for people to trust or mistrust someone. If they suspect you fall into a category, they are more inclined to trust you or not. The problem with trusting on that basis is that it is so simplistic: You have no other information about the person and thus can end up having a misplaced trust.

If you are a conservative and you find out that someone you work with is a liberal, you may not know much about them but automatically you may be inclined not to trust them. Alternatively, if you took the time to find out about their integrity, ability, and benevolence, you may find that they are actually a very trustworthy colleague.

Karin Wilkins, dean, School of Communication: Public trust in political institutions as well as media has been declining steadily since the 1970s, though accelerated in more recent years. Political discourse has become much more adversarial in recent years, with this fragmentation building more walls than inspiring collective, shared values. People have lost trust in some levels of government, though not all share the same distrust of the same political actors. It is not just that people have lost trust, but also that political actors and agencies may not be worthy of trust.

Trust in media is complicated. We could talk about trust in news, in terms of platforms or sources, trust in advertising, and other media. In the face of many channels and sources of information expanding greatly over time, distrust has increased, but not entirely across all media. It's important to note that people trust their local journalists and news sources more than national, but we are seeing a serious decline in the financing of local news industries.

Why is it important to have trust in institutions?

Sallie Hughes: I’ll turn that question around a bit. It’s important to have skepticism and demand accountability from leaders. Likewise, it’s important to question and then transform institutions that treat people inequitably, violate rights, or lead to poor outcomes. Some distrust is good when it can be channeled into positive change.

When distrust becomes pervasive, however, it means systems are failing and must be reformed. We ignore this at the risk of heightened conflict of many kinds—which we are indeed witnessing. The violence targeting journalists online is an example of this. So are the Capitol assault and rise in hate crimes.

Karin Wilkins: Trust is essential to enable our institutions to represent and respond to our concerns and needs. Communication is essential to that trust but can also contribute to that demise. If done well, communication has the potential to build civility.

Cecily Cooper: Trust is a social lubricant that enables the coordination of cooperation necessary to get work done. But it is more than that. Trust entails a willingness to take a risk. You need to be a trustworthy organization so that investors buy your stock, so that customers buy your product and potential employees choose to work for your organization rather than elsewhere. These are all ways that organizations benefit from being seen as trustworthy.

Can we blame this trend on social media?

Sallie Hughes: Not alone, there are deeper roots to distrust. But social media companies at present do in some ways amplify distrust and make it harder to enter in dialogue so we can reconstitute social connections and reform systems. We need to think about ways to regulate that do not violate our commitment to free thought and open debate.

Karin Wilkins: We cannot blame social media. We can recognize that social media industries make decisions that do matter in terms of the way we get information, particularly in terms of building echo chambers, reinforcing our sentiments. We as a community can create policies that would steer these industries in different ways, as well as advocate for platforms with more transparency and civility.

Cecily Cooper: Social media does play a role in this because we have less of a public/private divide. In the past, before social media, there was no avenue to find out about other people’s lives unless you spent time with them outside of work. Now if you are linked to social media channels they see into your personal lives, what your house looks like, your family, and so on.

A lot of information you post online may indicate what your political ideology is even if you are not posting your political beliefs.

People are using different cues to make assumptions about others and their ideological beliefs. These assumptions may often be incorrect, of course, but they will affect how you feel about your colleagues

Has the mainstream media also done things to erode this trust?

Sallie Hughes: When journalists define news through conflict lenses we are contributing to distrust. In part this happens because a ratings and click-driven commercial media system incentivizes conflict-driven media narratives that sensationalize. So, we need to look at systemic causes for media-driving polarization such as media financing. 

As a school, we need to teach journalism that provides context, presents voices in dialogue, and covers solutions as much as conflict. We also need to teach alternative forms of media finance so this sort of journalism can be more than marginalized, precarious, and financially vulnerable. 

Some politicians have always acted in untrustworthy ways, but a Pew poll said that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) say that low trust in the federal government makes it harder to solve many of the country’s problems. Is this because of polarization of our political views? Any other reasons?

Karin Wilkins: Politicians, as with media, can improve trust by engaging in dialogue with communities and through being transparent in terms of their source of funding and information. 

Gregory Koger, professor and chair, Department of Political Science: There has always been a mistrust of politicians and their motives, but I think a critical reason in recent history that increased that mistrust was the financial crash of 2008. It is the nature of financial crisis and recessions to make people distrust financial and political elites because they look around and see that everyday economy is working and the system comes to a crash because of poor decisions by the richest of the rich with minimal supervision by government agencies that are supposed to be watching them.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, what had been two polarized parties with high partisanship has become two organizations that are fumbling from within because of the disintegration of trust among party members and their leaders. So, they became vulnerable to politicians who cast doubt upon the parties and promise that only if they are given power would they achieve positive results.

What can be done to improve the trust of our citizens?

Karin Wilkins: We can improve trust by not only advocating for media industries and political agencies to improve their credibility, but also through citizen education. Distrust may be warranted, depending on the nature of the person or agency creating content. But distrust can be turned into healthy skepticism, which can strengthen citizen engagement. The key to building healthy skepticism is education in critical communication literacies. When citizens know what questions to ask, they can determine which actors are worthy of trust. And as that kind of critique becomes more prevalent, political and media institutions will need to respond to survive.

Gregory Koger: Politicians can change ways they communicate to express higher levels of trust in their own parties and to accept the legitimacy of the opposing party as representing a large segment of American population. They can also try to find common ground to answer to problems. 

Also, something else that would really help is a fundamental change in our campaign finance system. One of the roots of our challenge is that politicians have to raise contributions from small segments of populations. Our elections are influenced by waves of cash coming from large donors, secret corporations, and this foments distrust. It makes politicians scared of and beholden to a small slice of the population that has a great deal of money.