Explaining Journalists’ Trust in Public Institutions Across 20 Countries
If journalists do not trust government institutions, this is likely to be reflected in their reportage and may ultimately shape the opinions of citizens about government. What societal factors influence journalists’ level of trust in public institutions?
A 2012 study from the University of Munich and the University Rey Juan Carlos published in the Journal of Communication, “Explaining Journalists’ Trust in Public Institutions Across 20 Countries,” attempted to understand the relationship between journalists and institutional trust. Over the period 2008-11, the researchers surveyed 2,000 journalists in 20 countries (100 per country) who work in a variety of media outlets (print and broadcast, government-owned and private, and elite and popular.) Participating countries represented a balance between the developed and developing world, and included both democracies and authoritarian states. On a scale of 1-5, each journalist rated their trust in institutions of parliament, political parties, government, judiciary, police and politicians in general. The results were then correlated with national data on GDP, freedom of the press, democracy, corruption, interpersonal trust and the power distance of the journalists.
The study’s findings include:
- In every country surveyed, journalists’ level of trust in public institutions ranked below 2.5 out of 5; more than 95% of journalists rated their institutions lower than 4.0. In 80% of the countries, trust was rated below 2.0. In short, journalists across the world tended to distrust public institutions.
- Trust was typically higher in Western countries than in non-Western ones. Notable exceptions to the rule included Greece, Chile, China, (pre-revolution) Egypt and Pakistan. Chinese journalists exhibited the highest levels of trust in their public institutions.
- Higher levels of trust were also reported in countries with lower levels of corruption and higher levels of media freedom and interpersonal trust. However, journalists in more democratic countries reported lower levels of trust than their counterparts: “For journalists, corruption and limited media freedom are clearly more powerful and also more evident impediments to their work than the more abstract restrictions posed by a lack of democracy.”
- No connection was found between trust and personal or national economic performance.
- Journalists working in state-owned media reported higher levels of institutional trust than their colleagues working in private and public media organizations.
- While higher levels of institutional trust were found in countries with more authoritarian governments such as China, Egypt and Pakistan, the researchers cautioned that these survey respondents may not have been forthright and that journalists and other residents of these countries may have a different interpretation of public institutions than do Westerners.
The researchers summarized the study’s findings as follows: “A major conclusion from this study is that the extent to which journalists are trusting of public institutions varies considerably across nations, though not so much between news organizations. Some of the principal factors that shape these trust levels emanate from the societal level: Journalists tend to trust more in public institutions if they work under conditions of relative media freedom, and they have more trust in contexts where corruption is less pervasive and where people generally tend to trust each other.”
Read the issue-related article in the New York Times article "Journalists Should Be Government Mouthpieces, Chinese Media Leader Says."
- What key insights from the article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled “Explaining Journalists’ Trust in Public Institutions Across 20 Countries.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?