“32 Percent Project” Explores What Drives and Disrupts Trust in Journalism

In the fall of 2016, a Gallup poll reported what had largely become common knowledge: Americans’ trust in the news media had sunk to an all-time low. Just 32 percent of those surveyed had confidence that the media would report the news “fully, accurately and fairly,” a number that had been steadily — and now drastically — declining.

If the trend had been the cause of some concern among journalists over the past several years, it became a full-blown industry crisis when events surrounding the 2016 presidential election revealed just how far journalists had fallen in the nation’s esteem. Terms like “fake news” and “crooked media” emerged to describe journalists who, in the speakers’ view, deliberately used their platform to spread lies and personal opinions to an uninclined public. In addition, journalists became the target of increasing censorship efforts and physical attacks.

These might be considered isolated incidents if they didn’t underscore such widely shared sentiments. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey released in January 2018 revealed that fully two-thirds of Americans believe news organizations are doing a bad job separating fact from opinion and 43 percent have a negative view of the media.

Many might perceive this as a media literacy issue, and that’s certainly part of the story. The same Gallup/Knight Foundation survey reported that just 27 percent of Americans feel very confident that they can distinguish factual news from commentary or opinion, and a polarized country has led to a polarized media landscape in which news consumers tend to seek out information that mirrors their political views.

But to focus solely on media literacy as an antidote to the current state of distrust is to discount the role that journalists themselves play in fostering an environment in which the public trusts news organizations to report factually, fairly and in good faith.

This exploration of trust in the news media began with a simple question: How can journalists persuade the public to trust them more? But a deeper dive into the issue revealed we had it backward. Trust is not something to ask for — it’s something to earn. So, the more productive question became: How can journalists better earn the public’s trust?

Viewing the issue through this lens revealed that a critical voice had often been missing from the conversation: citizens themselves.

Both before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many journalism researchers and practitioners set out to develop a deeper understanding of the dynamics of trust, and how they’re evolving in an age of digitization and political polarization. The Arena project at the London School of Economics examines the rise of disinformation, The Trust Project at Santa Clara University explores strategies for identifying and labeling high-quality content, the Trusting News project focuses on improving trust-building practices within newsrooms and the News Integrity Initiative seeks to strengthen journalism’s public service mission.

The 32 Percent Project launched in July 2017 to add another dimension to this work. The project explores what drives and disrupts interpersonal trust as a way to isolate and identify strategies that can be applied to the practice of journalism. Since trust is a concept that is differently defined by different people, the query entailed detailed, personal conversations with diverse groups across the country. The project team hosted workshops in urban and rural areas, with people of varied demographics, backgrounds and political affiliations. In all, 54 people participated in four community workshops, which were held in public meeting spaces in Pico Rivera, Calif., Boston, Mass., Oxford, Miss., and Vienna, Ill. This diverse group of citizens shared insights into the characteristics of trust, which can inform the way journalists and media organizations approach their relationship with the communities they serve. After all, there are 68 percent of Americans who don’t see the value in the critical work that journalists do. Now comes the worthy task of showing them.

Download the full report here.

Click below for press about the project.