I’ve been thinking about Ethan Zuckerman’s paper on the roots of the crisis in trust in journalism. Zuckerman connects the bottoming out of trust in the media with the loss in faith in institutions in general, including the government, labor unions, schools, and big business. It asks more questions than it answers, which is fine. Figuring out the right questions is the first step.
But he only hints at one of the biggest questions of all, which is: what happens if we can’t restore faith in the instituions that our civilization is built upon?
There was at one point, and probably still is, a case to be made that less trust in instituions is a good thing. Blind faith in leaders is bad. But we’re entering a world of blind malice instead that seems equally corrosive.
Looking at journalism specifically, the usual prescribed remedy is “better journalism.” But I think that’s only one part of it. Good journalism never went away, and there’s more good journalism published every week than anyone could possibly read. The problem isn’t the lack of good journalism, it’s the quantity of bad journalism out there.
Doing good journalism is hard, but it’s much easier than stopping bad journalism, especially today. The economic incentives for all the things included under the umbrella of “fake news” (misinformation, hoaxes, clickbait, etc) aren’t going away anytime soon.
But even if bad journalism went away and people only ever did good work, would it be enough to restore trust? If governments at all levels stopped screwing up and only did good, or at least not-bad things, would civic instituions be able to regain trust?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m obviously not persuaded that it’s “yes.” And if it’s “no,” then what? Collapse? What does that actually look like, how does that actually work? Would new instituions arise to take their place? To an extent, that’s already happening, with the rise of right-wing media that started decades ago.
One alternate way of looking at things is that we’re actually seeing a fragmentation of trust. No one trusts “the media” anymore, but people trust specific publications or personalities. No one trusts “the government,” but some politicians have highly trusting, cult-like followings (Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, etc.). Congress’s approval rating is abysmal, but people tend to like their own senators and representatives. Does this apply to schools as well? Do you distrust your child’s school, but trust their teachers?
Not sure what to make of any of this yet.
Adapted from my e-mail newsletter