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How Declining Institutional Trust Makes It Harder To Address A Pandemic


Our ability to cope efficiently with the Wuhan virus is complicated by declining trust in institutions. In crises like a pandemic, media and government are our most important sources of information.

Consider these findings from a Pew survey last year, which reported, “About two-thirds (69%) of Americans say the federal government intentionally withholds important information from the public that it could safely release, and 61% say the news media intentionally ignores stories that are important to the public.”

According to Gallup, confidence in church and organized religion, Congress, newspapers, television news, and other institutions is at or near historic lows. About trust in mass media, Gallup documented last fall: “Although overall trust was at the majority level until 2004, no more than 21% of Americans dating back to 1972 ever said they had the greatest level of trust. Currently, 13% have a great deal of trust, 28% a fair amount, 30% not very much and 28% none at all.”

That means we’re facing a pandemic with 58 percent of Americans holding either “not very much” trust or “none at all” in the media, which is tasked with keeping us informed and keeping the government accountable. (When you consider reports like this one from Jim Acosta, it’s easy to understand why.)

Speaking of government, Pew found in January that “About half of the public says they trust what Trump says less than previous presidents.” Some of that is the media’s fault, and some of it is Trump’s. Wherever you place the blame, it’s not good in a time of crisis, when the president is overseeing the executive branch’s response and people rely upon his public statements for accurate information.

Given the data, this tweet from Megyn Kelly probably captures a frustration experienced by many others.

In a pandemic, everyone knows and loves people who are at risk, from the highest levels of government down to every citizen outside the halls of power. Our shared interest in containing COVID doesn’t mean either the media or Washington will necessarily rise to the challenge with competence. The trajectory of public trust in both institutions means a lot of people are probably skeptical.

This is most concerning in regard to the dissemination of critical information, a task handled primarily by government (particularly the president) and media. Both are responsible for taking what top medical experts have determined and passing it along to the public.

The government devises policy plans to contain the virus and aid its victims, while the media investigates those plans and communicates them to readers. We need to trust them because we need to trust that information. When we don’t, cobbling together a basic understanding of the facts involves sifting through a mountain of sources and weighing their respective trustworthiness. It’s not a simple undertaking, as Kelly lamented.

There’s some reason for optimism. In 2018, Gallup found “72% of U.S. adults say they have a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ of trust in their local government.” Local governments, of course, will be instrumental in providing information about COVID and implementing steps to contain it in their communities.

Nevertheless, there is no question that confusion over COVID will amount to a real-world consequence of declining confidence in institutions, a phenomenon that can sometimes feel abstract. Perhaps it will at least persuade us the need to do better is an urgent one.