Tag Archives: trust

What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.

The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. 

The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.

Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”

Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.

What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.

The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.

 

Speaking of Infectious Diseases…

It would do us well to remember that chosen ignorance isn’t confined to the uneducated, Fox-“news”-watching, fearful folks who tend to be the butt of liberal disdain.

 A new study confirms its presence in tonier liberal precincts as well.

When it comes to science illiteracy in the form of Creationism, we know what kind of people are more likely to believe it: Those who attend church frequently, the elderly, and people without much formal education.

But when it comes to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, the demographics are very different, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

The people most likely to refuse to have their children vaccinated tend to be white, well-educated and affluent.

Although this particular data point was not in the study, I’d be very surprised if the same people who are rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus about the value of vaccination aren’t also sneering at the “anti-science” folks denying the reality of climate change.

At both ends of the political spectrum, we have people picking and choosing the scientists and scientific conclusions they are prepared to accept. I’m neither a sociologist nor a political psychologist, so I’m unprepared to offer a theory about why liberals choose to reject one set of conclusions and conservatives another, although I have a sneaking suspicion that in each case, tribal identity plays a large part.

And independent–let alone critical– thinking plays very little…..

Trust, City Life–and a Meditation on Branding

One blog I follow is CityScope–an ongoing conversation about urban life and innovation around the globe. A recent post there focused on one of my preoccupations, the importance of trust in building social capital and facilitating city life, from a fresh perspective.

Obviously, trust has always been a social dynamic in cities. (So has mistrust. See Ferguson, Missouri.)  Today, some combination of technology, austerity and social transformation seems to be changing the conversation. The rise of mobile apps, social media and other web-enabled forms of communication are a big part of what’s going on. These platforms don’t create trust, but they do create new ways for us to discover trust and put it to work in cities.

The author of the post quoted Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, who described how his service, which lets people rent out their homes or spare bedrooms to strangers, had expanded to more than 34,000 cities in 190 countries in a mere six years.

“At its core, the thing that we invented wasn’t the ability to book someone’s home,” Chesky said. “What we invented was a very streamlined mechanism for trust.”

“Before us, essentially everyone was a stranger,” Chesky continued. “The only thing you could buy was from companies — those companies had brands, and those brands said the companies could be trusted. A person — you couldn’t trust. The moment identity got attached to people, suddenly the playing field was level. People could act as businesses. They could act as microentrepreneurs.”

I hadn’t really thought about the role of branding in creating trust, and reading this gave me one of those “aha” moments. Of course! That’s why people stop at a Wendy’s or McDonalds when they’re on a road trip–they “trust” what they’ll get; they’ll know what to expect. That’s why my husband orders his khakis from LL Bean when he buys on the internet; he knows what he will get in both quality and fit.  Creating and then fulfilling expectations is what “branding” is mostly about. (I do recognize that a large part of the preference for upscale appliances and identifiable designer clothing among those who can afford such things is not reliance on the inherent quality of the goods, but the message sent by flaunting the brand.)

Keeping one’s brand trustworthy is incredibly important to commercial enterprises. Public relations professionals sometimes specialize in “crisis management”–handling events that might reduce brand trust and thus loyalty. (NFL, anyone?) Companies that cannot manage these PR disasters find themselves in deep trouble.

Politically, we are about to see what happens when a political party’s brand becomes toxic to the nation as a whole, but the dynamics of the organization prevent cooler heads from “managing” the problem.

Recently, a Republican high in the party hierarchy admitted to a friend of mine that there is no way today’s GOP can win the Presidency; absent residential sorting, gerrymandering and voter “ID” laws, the party would not be able to win House seats. It may take another couple of election cycles, but the “brand” is increasingly toxic to younger voters, who “trust” it to take positions that are anathema to most of them.

When the old white guys who can be relied upon to support the brand no matter how repellent it has become die off, the Grand Old Party will face a choice: abandon its current radicalism and return to the center-right brand that sold well, or become irrelevant.

 

 

Distrust, American Style

A few years back, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence. (Still available on Amazon–hint, hint…). The book was a response–a rebuttal, actually–to arguments advanced by Robert Putnam (better known for Bowling Alone),  who had theorized that rising levels of distrust were a response to Americans’ growing diversity.

My own research suggested otherwise. Certainly, living in urban areas populated with lots of folks who look and act differently from you can generate some anxiety, but my reading suggested a different culprit: insecurity, exacerbated by crime and the lack of a social safety net.

A telling comparison can be drawn between the U.S. and Canada, countries with very similar cultural roots and environments. Canadians watch American television, read many of the same newspapers and magazines, and even have relatively high gun ownership rates–but far less crime and social distrust. What Canada does have that U.S. Americans do not is a strong social safety net, and most importantly, universal health care.

A recent study provides further evidence of the connection between economic security and social trust.

Greater income inequality, the team found, was correlated with lower trust in others, while greater poverty, more violent crime, and an improving stock market were linked with less confidence in institutions.

We might expect that people who live in constant fear that they are one illness away from bankruptcy, who live in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and crime is rampant, would become wary and distrustful.

Ironically, however, income inequality is equally likely to create distrust and fear in wealthier precincts. Gated communities, booming sales of security cameras, the rise in “private” police, all testify to the insecurity of the well-to-do.

Poor people fear disaster; rich people fear poor people. And no one trusts anyone.

But hey–our taxes are lower than ever.