The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

“Where are the people getting their negative impressions of their new leader? They are getting them from the same press they say they do not trust.”

In September, eight weeks before the election, Gallup reported that trust in the nation’s news media has reached the lowest point since they began asking this question 44 years ago. The decline in trust, Gallup noted, has been more or less steady since 2005, although it greatly accelerated in 2016.

dick-tofelSince the election, journalists have been engaged in almost nonstop handwringing about the collapse in trust. To be candid, most seem astonished — but also almost affronted — that so much of the electorate chose Donald Trump after the avalanche of negative coverage he received. Surely, they seem to think, if the voters trusted us, they wouldn’t have voted for this man.

But there is another set of numbers worth considering as well. Here are a few examples: 20 percent of Trump voters, the exit polls report, had an unfavorable view of him. That’s 12 million people voting for a man they didn’t like. Fully 57 percent of white voters did not consider Trump honest or trustworthy. In other words, the explanation for the election result likely turned not so much on views of Trump, but on how broken many Americans believe our system to be, and on how desperate they are somehow to change it. (Also, on what many think of Hillary Clinton.)

And while many Americans are currently giving the president-elect the benefit of any doubts since his election, more are not. In eight polls taken since the election, Trump’s average of favorable views minus negative views is negative 4 percent. Bill Clinton, who was first elected with a smaller share of the popular vote than Trump (albeit in a three-candidate race), had net approval ratings around positive 30 percent at this point in 1992. Barack Obama, whose share of the popular vote was about seven points higher than Trump’s, had net approval ratings around positive 40 percent in 2008. In a survey taken in early December, 65 percent of respondents said they considered Trump to be “reckless.”

Justice Potter Stewart, in discussing Supreme Court rulings favorable to the press, once rhetorically asked a group of journalists, “Where do you think these rights came from? The stork didn’t bring them!” Similarly, where did voters get these views, and where are the people getting their negative impressions of their new leader?

They are getting them from the same press they say they do not trust.

I do not mean to minimize the problem of the trust gap: It is real, and it has important implications. Cable television, in particular, did a disgraceful job covering the campaign. Moreover, the trust gap is at least in part the result of a concerted campaign by Trump and others who share his politics, quite possibly aided and abetted by the Russian government, to undermine confidence in American journalism. This presents a serious threat in 2017, and likely beyond that.

But while concerned about trust, we need also to recognize that our fellow citizens are still listening to us as journalists, still reading, still watching, still learning from us — and that we need to redouble our own efforts to listen, and to learn from them.

The year ahead promises a time of well-reasoned fear for those of us in the news business. But fear should not give way to despair, nor should it cause us to soft-pedal the truth about our next president and his new administration.

Democratic governance in the United States is premised in part on the notion that if the people are kept informed by a vigorous press, they will ultimately choose wisely from among potential leaders. But such faith in long-term outcomes does not, and should not be taken to mean that all electoral judgments will be deemed wise by history. James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon (twice) were all elected president.

Beyond that, while everyone prefers to be liked, admired, trusted, being liked is not our job as journalists.

Instead, that job, in the year ahead, is to continue to tell the truth about President Trump and all that comes with him, and to do this with special vigor when and if he challenges limits set by the Constitution. It is also to keep faith with the American people, believing that if we continue to listen to and inform them, they will, collectively, bring the country through, and perhaps even, thereby, have their own trust in the press somewhat restored.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Trushar Barot   API or die

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Errin Haines Whack   Chaos or community?

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Mario García   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Richard J. Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media