Rebuilding Trust In Our Democratic Institutions : Consider This from NPR Americans' trust in both their government and in each other is declining. That's according to the Pew Research Center, who have been collecting this data for decades.

Researchers Bradley Jones and Katerina Eva Matsa discuss how and why Americans are losing trust in two critical institutions: elections and news media.

Then, Eric Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, and Tony Marcano, managing editor of member station KPCC and the LAist, share the steps they are taking to help citizens engage in civic life and re-establish trust in our country's election systems and news media.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

How To Fix Declining Trust In Elections And The News Media

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1072841520/1073398940" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Americans' trust in the U.S. government is at an all-time low.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Trust or the lack there of, one of the...

KATERINA EVA MATSA: Trust has been declining for a while now. I mean, this is not a new phenomenon.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Pew Research Center has been polling Americans for decades. More and more, they are finding that Americans are growing less trusting of key institutions that make government function. Why is that happening? It's a complicated picture, says Pew researcher Katerina Eva Matsa.

MATSA: There is not one single element that we've seen in our data that we can pinpoint and say, OK, this is what happened and this is why we are seeing decline.

MARTIN: Recently, they've been going back through their surveys to chart this decline. And while there's no one reason for the dip, one factor stands out - party affiliation. And that likely determines who you trust.

MATSA: We see deep partisan divides in which sources people turn to, the sources that they trust, how they consume news. This is very much driven by their political identity.

MARTIN: And it's gotten worse in recent years.

MATSA: Never before prior to 2016 we had seen that huge divide between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to their views about the news media.

MARTIN: But it's not just the news media that's losing trust.

BRADLEY JONES: Pretty regularly, you see supporters of the winning candidate having much more trust in the elections.

MARTIN: That's Bradley Jones. He focuses on U.S. public opinion about politics at the Pew Research Center. Recently, he's been looking into public trust in our elections and it doesn't look good.

JONES: Elections are the primary way that the public is connected to politicians, right? It's the way that we hold politicians accountable. And it really kind of underpins the whole system. And so if faith and trust in elections erodes, then it's like the foundation of the building crumbling.

MARTIN: CONSIDER THIS - faith in two institutions critical for a functioning democracy is waning, and there's no easy fix. So how can journalists and concerned citizens help break this trend? That's coming up. From NPR, I'm Michel Martin. It's Saturday, January 15.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. As we just heard, our country is struggling to trust the news media and the elections they cover. And for reporters, it's a struggle, too.

KADIA GOBA: In order to debunk a lie, you have to give life to it. You have to write about it.

MARTIN: That's Kadia Goba, a political reporter for BuzzFeed News.

GOBA: So journalists - well, I'll speak for myself - I'm always at odds at what's too much coverage on misinformation or the people that spew the misinformation versus what's not enough.

PAUL KANE: I don't know where the line is. I'm not sure how to handle it. And we've grappled with this for several years now.

MARTIN: Paul Kane is a senior congressional correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post. He says the amount of misinformation and even blatant lies politicians are spreading has left journalists floundering for an appropriate response to brazen misbehavior.

KANE: You can't ignore these things, but at the same time, the whole adage that, you know, sunshine is the best disinfectant is an adage that's built on the idea that there is shame, that people will be shamed by sunshine and they will then clean up their act.

MARTIN: And with the partisan divide, no matter how hard some journalists work to prevent objective facts, a part of the audience will decide it is all a lie if it comes from a source they don't like or agree with or is connected to something else they oppose.

GOBA: How do we reach the audience that is reading the misleading information?

MARTIN: That's a tall order when the past year's news cycle included repeated false claims of election interference, claims that led to the riot in our nation's Capitol to overturn the results of that election. Last month, the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School published a poll that found half of voting age Americans under 30 thought our democracy was in trouble or failing. A third said they expected there to be a civil war within their lifetimes. It's hard not to be discouraged by these numbers, but our next guests are working towards building more trust and shoring up our civic institutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So what does it take to rebuild faith in democracy? Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of citizen university. That's a group focused on bringing people together to help rebuild civic engagement - in other words, to help people rebuild those participatory muscles that have gotten flabby by sitting on the sidelines.

ERIC LIU: We have been taught over the course of a generation to be spectators, to be consumers, to watch, to critique what we see. But we have forgotten how to be participants. We've forgotten how to be people who shape what the world around us and shape even the community around us.

MARTIN: I asked Eric Liu what a strong civic culture looks like.

LIU: I think a strong civic culture is one where we are fluent in power, which means we understand how things work and how things get decided. And we can begin to practice actually being part of the answer to the question, who decides? But that fluency in power then is coupled with character, with a set of values and ethics, that it's - I'm going to participate not just to get mine, not to exclude other people, but to figure out, how can we make a community that starts working for everybody?

MARTIN: In the journalism world, leaders of NPR member station KPCC and its digital counterpart LAist said they are trying to do just that by shifting their political coverage away from politicians and towards voters. Managing editor Tony Marcano joined me in conversation with Eric Liu. And I started by asking Tony Marcano, why this shift in his newsroom?

TONY MARCANO: Most people don't look for issues coverage. They want to know how they can interact with the government and how it can be relevant to their day-to-day living. So we made a very conscious decision that we were going to tilt the focus over to more of a civics gaze, more of a civic spend (ph), and do it through the lens of our audience from our listeners and our readers. So we're going to continue our mission to inform the public, but we just want to do it in a way that engages listeners and readers and makes them aware of the direct impact on their lives. So even when we call out politicians or people for their bad behavior, it might not seem directly relevant, but we want to make it clear that bad actors in politics do have a direct impact on people's lives. And we need to show how that is, so we need to do both.

MARTIN: Eric, you started at Citizen university in part to address this sense of disillusionment and also to remind people how to get involved in their local community. You know, I think I can say that the pandemic has made a lot of people tired and jaded. And it is a year since the mob attack on the Capitol. I know it's a big question, and I know we can't resolve this all here, but I am just interested in how your thoughts about how to meet the current moment.

LIU: Well, I think you begin to meet this current moment by acknowledging it, as you have. People are losing faith. People are burned out. People are feeling more isolated, not just because of the strictures of the pandemic, but because the way we even consume media is isolating us more and more into smaller and smaller niches, just to make this concrete and not abstract. Among the many people at Citizen University who we've had the chance to train is this woman named Carmina Taylor (ph), who lives in Philadelphia. But she looked around at all the things that we've been talking about here, the brokenness, the sense of disillusionment, the sense of disempowerment. But she also had spent time living not in the big city, but in rural areas, both in Pennsylvania and around the country. And she knew that in different ways for different reasons, and often with different political expression, there was that same sense of disillusionment, disempowerment, alienation, disrespect.

And Carmina began to take it upon herself to start bridging these different gaps. And she is now planning a state-wide road show, basically, of civic Saturday gatherings, which are these gatherings that we've been helping to catalyze around the country. And in each place across the state of Pennsylvania, she's intentionally inviting people across lines of race, class, urban, rural, political ideology. And she's doing this not by treating it like bureaucracy, not by treating it like some - like she's the savior, but simply with a spirit of humble invitation. You know, reviving a sense of hope and civic life is not going to be a thing that a president or a governor or a political leader is going to be able to do for us. This has to emerge from the inside out, from the middle out, from the bottom up in our society. And I think that's what's lacking in our civic culture right now is just a determination among everyday Americans to say, I'm going to invite other people to join me in some common endeavor.

MARTIN: So, Tony, what about that? I want to - on the topic of rebuilding trust. I mean, that's entirely what you've been talking about here. But do you think that newsrooms are doing enough to rebuild trust among the public more broadly, and what would that look like?

MARCANO: So that requires a very thoughtful engagement plan of how not only are we going to do the coverage, but how are we going to get it in front of people's eyes? How are we going to reach underrepresented and underserved audiences? We have to go out and engage them. The woman who's doing the Citizen Saturdays is exactly the kind of thing that we want to hear about and we want to report on because it shows that one person who's not a politician, who's not elected official, who's not in the halls of power can make a difference in building community, building trust, building civic engagement. You know, we are purposely taking a stance where we want to identify the sources of anti-democratic movements. We need to make people realize why that's important. But we can't just drag them kicking and screaming like we're going to grab a child and force them to eat their broccoli. We want to make it relevant to them. We want to actually make them - show them that they can make a difference and - but go ahead.

LIU: I just wanted to pick up on one thing Tony just said there about, you know, you can't treat this like eat your vegetables. And tuning in to what's the intrinsic motivation of people to show up, to participate in the kind of participatory media that Tony and his colleagues are trying to create or to show up and participate in a school board meeting or a town meeting or whatever it might be. And the motivation is generally primarily not going to be a rational logical motivation. It's going to be an emotional motivation. People are feeling fear. People are feeling hope. People are feeling a desire to belong.

You know, one form of government that Americans across the board still actually have a high degree of faith in - the public library. Now, why is that? That's because public library professionals, not just certified librarians, but everyone who works in a public library is trying to tune in, is trying to figure out, what does this couple here need who don't seem to speak English? What is this person who may look like he's unhoused actually need? And that ability to tune in is something that we all as citizens have to actually re-equip ourselves to be able to do. But fortunately, there are some institutions left whose purpose still is to do that.

MARTIN: Just in the course of your work and your lives, do you think that most people actually want things to be different? Because the reality of it is that it has become clear that some people like the division. Some people go into politics not to bring bring people together, but to dominate. Tony, do you think that most people want what you think they want, which is just to be included and to be heard?

MARCANO: Well, that's part of the engagement strategy is that we need to listen to what people are interested in hearing about. We need to tap into what it is that people want to know about their government. You know, one of the things we rarely see in media is politicians who actually are making things work. We focus on the ones who are obstructionist and are shouting the loudest. But who's effective? Who's actually serving their constituencies? We want to know about that.

MARCANO: Eric, final thought?

LIU: Well, you know, I think all people, wherever they're coming from, want respect and dignity. They want to feel like they matter. They don't want to feel disrespected by society, elite institutions, their neighbors and others. So I think all people want that. I think some people believe that, you know, the pursuit of dignity and respect is a zero-sum game, that if someone's getting or claiming more right to dignity and respect, that must be taking away my own. And so I need to shut that down. I need to dominate them, that this is a game of domination and defeat. And I think the charge that all of us have as citizens is that this is not a zero-sum matter.

It is possible for us, in fact, it is absolutely necessary for us to recognize that on an ethical level, we're all better off when we're all better off, that actually, yes, we're still going to have deep power imbalances. Yes, we're still going to have some people who are going to try to exploit our divisions. But we have to recommit to the idea that we can build a positive some outcome where the achievement of equality for people who've been long cut out does not diminish the dignity of those who have had relative privilege and power. And I think we're living that question right now. Can we do it? You know, that is itself a matter of faith. Democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works.

MARTIN: That was Eric Liu. He is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. He's also the author of a number of books, including "You're More Powerful Than You Think." We also heard from Tony McConnell. He is the managing editor of Southern California Public Radio, which includes KPCC in Los Angeles and LAist. Tony Marcano, Eric Liu, thank you both so much for joining us.

LIU: Great to be with you. Thanks, Michel.

MARCANO: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.