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.
Since 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.