There is a crisis of trust in American democracy. By virtually every measure, Americans’ trust in most of their democratic institutions, and particularly in the media, has declined dramatically over the past half century. A country that provides universal education, proclaims press freedom and enjoys the legacy of one of the oldest representative governments in the world is nevertheless having great difficulty understanding and supporting its democracy.
Why are Americans losing faith in democratic institutions? Government appears gridlocked and unresponsive amid large-scale global shocks and serious domestic challenges. American politics are sharply polarized. The gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow, with declining prospects for upward mobility. And racial tensions persist.
Although a vibrant free press is an essential element of a healthy democracy, much of the public lacks faith that the news media are accurate and unbiased. While most people find some content source that they like, they show declining trust in news media as a category.
Advances in technology have given citizens unparalleled access to the world’s great pool of knowledge and people. Yet that same technology is overwhelming individuals’ ability to find news they consider trustworthy. Because the internet allows anybody to create content and share it widely, there are fewer controls over accuracy. Misinformation and disinformation are spreading virally, sometimes by innocent sharing, sometimes with malice.
Meanwhile, the line between news and opinion has become blurred, as news reporting is increasingly intermixed with commentary. Declining revenues have forced many local news organizations to cut back substantially or shut their doors entirely, creating local “news deserts.” And attacks by politicians on the media are further shaking people’s trust in the press.
Layered on top of these challenges is perhaps an even more fundamental development—an inability to agree on facts. In 2018, unwelcome facts are labeled as “fake,” false information is regularly sent out over the internet and increasingly sophisticated “deepfake” video technologies can manipulate images and voices to realistically portray something that never happened. “Filter bubbles” make it possible for people to live in “echo chambers,” exposed primarily to the information and opinions that are in accord with their own.
So, accompanying and amplifying concerns over the future of American democracy is a crisis of trust in news and basic information. But a “post-truth” politics is incompatible with a functioning democracy, and an assault on the notion of truth is a fundamental attack on our ability to self-govern.
The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, 27 diverse citizens organized by the Aspen Institute in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, hopes for an American future that promotes knowledge of the country’s democratic heritage, encourages a willingness to engage in local civic activities and supports an array of inclusive institutions in government, media, business and civil society. It sees vibrant and responsible journalism serving the goal of self-government and holding the powerful accountable, and a world where new forms of communication enhance rather than diminish a healthy democracy.
This Commission wants 21st century American democracy to work at all levels, and strongly believes it can. This report aims to articulate the reasons for the growing distrust in American institutions, to re-envision news media that will be fair, truthful and responsible, and to catalyze citizens to participate in civic life.
The Commission recommends specific actions to restore trust in media and democracy. It identifies what journalists can do; what the media distributors such as social media and other digital networks can do; what government and business leaders can do; and, perhaps most important, what each American can and should do to assume responsibility for democratic governance.