Expert Commentary

Explaining journalists’ trust in public institutions across 20 countries

2012 study from the University of Munich and University Rey Juan Carlos on journalists in 20 countries and their levels of institutional trust.

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.”

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