Trust in Institutions


The concept of journalistic trust in institutions refers to the willingness of a journalist to believe the information provided by public institutions.

Journalists are important intermediaries between public institutions — like the government, the judiciary, and political parties — and their audiences. In most places, they serve as crucial links between ordinary citizens and the authorities who are supposed to represent them and who govern their lives. Indeed, citizens often do not get to meet those institutions or the individuals within them, nor do those citizens partake in the day-to-day work of governance. For example, few of us have ever met a sitting president of the United States or been part of a private Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Instead, we rely on journalistic media to keep us informed about those institutions and officials.

In this context, journalistic media can play both constructive and destructive roles. For example, sustained pessimism about the motivations of public institutions and negative coverage of their actions can contribute to public disdain for political actors. Conversely, journalism can also create and consolidate people’s trust in those same public institutions and ensure that those institutions live up to certain standards.

Additionally, the way in which journalists depict public institutions is often connected to their own level of trust in them. Indeed, in many journalistic cultures, a certain degree of skepticism is built deeply into their journalism’s professional ideology. In such places, journalists must therefore walk a tightrope between exercising a healthy amount of skepticism and instigating cynicism.

Kinds of Public Institutions

The Worlds of Journalism project has examined two distinct types of public institutions in a series of surveys between 2012 and 2016: representative institutions and regulative institutions.

Representative institutions are those that are responsible for democratic representation and political decision-making. They include institutions like parliament (or, in places like the U.S., Congress), government (or, in places like the U.S., the Executive Branch), political parties, and politicians (in general). Overall, journalists around the world have tended to have fairly little trust in representative institutions. Among them, the most trusted was parliament, which received an average rating between “low trust” and “some trust.” This was followed by institutions most akin to the U.S.’s Executive Branch. Political parties tend to receive the lowest ratings.

Regulative institutions are those that implement the decisions made by representative institutions. They include the judiciary, military, and police. Overall, journalists around the world have tended to have the greatest amount of trust in the judiciary. However, even then that trust was low, with the average rating being “some trust.” This was followed by the police and the military, both of which actually received higher ratings than any representative institution.

Synthesizing Trust

After examining 66 countries, the Worlds of Journalism researchers concluded that journalists around the world are generally skeptical of public institutions. Overall, their ratings tended to fall between “little” to “some” trust in institutions. They did, however, have relatively more confidence in regulative institutions than in representative ones. In particular, journalists in most countries tended to have especially low trust in politicians (in general) as well as the political parties they belong to. These findings are consistent with journalists’ general preference for a monitorial professional role orientation since it calls attention to journalists’ perceived need to keep tabs on what government and the powerful are up to.

However, although these findings were consistent across many countries, they were not unanimous. The researchers found no significant linear relationship between journalists’ trust in institutions and contextual factors like press freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and economic performance. The only factor that was consistent had to do with corruption: Countries in which corruption was low tended to have the highest levels of trust in institutions among journalists.

There were, however, many exceptions to that finding, too. For example, journalists in the United States, which has historically been considered to have low levels of corruption, exhibited relatively low levels of trust in institutions. This is likely due to the United States’ emphasis on watchdog reporting and the history of how professional journalism developed there. Indeed, this attitude is well captured by former Boston Globe journalist Bob Anglin, who wrote more than thirty years ago: “Show me a reporter with a respect for authority, and I’ll show you a lousy reporter.”

Conversely, journalists in countries like Bhutan and India, which have not been historically considered to have low levels of corruption, exhibited high levels of trust in institutions. In the case of Bhutan, the researchers hypothesized that it had to do with the fact that it was still a new democracy when they interviewed journalists, and they thus suspected that it was due to a “honeymoon” period of sorts. However, they have generally found that journalists in the younger democracies, and particularly in Eastern and Central Europe (e.g., Albania, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia), tended to have relatively lower levels of trust in public institutions. In many of those cases, the political, economic, and cultural transitions have been complicated and resulted in social inequalities, which in turn raises skepticism toward the public institutions charged with representing citizens and implementing political decisions.

Taken as a whole, the Worlds of Journalism project thus finds that there is near-universal skepticism of public institutions by journalists, but that the degree of trust (or lack thereof) is still dependent on different contextual factors — even as it remains unclear exactly which contextual factors best explain the differences. The broader implication is that journalists may approach those institutions with a critical eye — at least as far as other structural factors (e.g., protections from government interference) will allow them to — but they must take care to not simply reproduce that skepticism and, in turn, breed cynicism.

Key Takeaways

  • Globally, journalists are generally very skeptical of public institutions. This is consistent with their proclivity toward the monitorial role of journalism.

  • Trust is lower for representative institutions, or those responsible for democratic representation and political decision-making, than for regulative institutions, or those responsible for implementing and adjucticating those decisions.

  • Levels of trust in institutions are dependent on contextual factors, though scholars have yet to identify exactly which factors are most explanatory. Countries with low levels of corruption do tend to have higher levels of trust, though.