Each year, Edelman publishes its Trust Barometer, a comprehensive look at how institutions are faring the world over. The Trust Barometer is divided between two groups—the general online population and the informed public, and is conducted over a period of several weeks. The survey is now in its 18th year, and as with many years in the recent past, the results show that trust in institutions is continuing to erode.
In the US
Overall, the US saw the steepest decline in trust, down a whopping -37 points from 2017.
Trust in government has utterly collapsed, and one wonders if the numbers could still go lower. Plausibly, the answer is yes because it isn’t at zero—yet.
Edelman surveys two distinct groups in each country for the Trust Barometer: the general population and the informed public. The informed public group are regular consumers of news, and in prior years have generally held more favorable views of trust in the four institutions covered: NGOs, business, government, and the media.
This trend did not hold this year, as the informed public’s trust cratered, dropping in every category. These weren’t small drops either. From 2017 to 2018: trust in NGOs dropped from 73 to 51 (a -22 point drop); business, from 74 to 54 (-20); government, from 63 to 33 (-30); and media, from 64 to 42 (-22).
Around the world
China’s internal trust numbers rose, along with a scant handful of other countries—China, Indonesia, India, and the UAE are on the plus side of “average trust in institutions.” However, for the most part, distrust now seems to be a global standard. Of the 28 countries surveyed, 20 are “distrusters” an increase of one from last year.
The biggest negative changes globally were in the US (-9) and Italy (-5); the drop in trust in the US is the steepest Edelman has measured. The largest increases in trust were seen in China (+7), South Korea (+6), and the UAE (+6).
“Someone like me”
One of the most interesting data points to come out of the Edelman Trust Barometer was the decline in trust among peers. This has long been virtually a gold standard for trustworthiness, and although the decline was small, it is notable.
Speculation on why this is the case will be interesting, and it could well be additional fallout from the decline in trust in platforms as a means by which people are consuming news. Manipulation of social channels and the sharing of less-than-accurate (or flat-out false) information on these platforms has probably contributed to the decline in trust among peers.
Trust and the Media
Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2018 carries some interesting news for journalists. While the overall numbers for trust in media continue to be low—in fact, “media” is listed as the least-trusted institution overall—part of this low score is driven by how those surveyed define “media.” When asked about the phrase “the media in general,” respondents included platforms, such as Google and Facebook, as media, along with journalists and publishers.
The role of platforms in the loss of trust continues to have significant ramifications. Unilever, one of the world’s top advertisers, has stated it will pull advertising from digital platforms if they don’t clean up their acts.
Journalists, however, are doing a bit better than platforms under the “media” banner. While platforms dropped -2 on the question of trust, journalists actually went up +5. Journalism is more trusted than platforms in more than 20 countries.
The question of truth was so pervasive that Edelman named 2018’s theme as “The Battle for Truth.” Each year that the trust barometer is conducted, Edelman identifies the key theme on which the results seem to turn, such as “Fall of the Celebrity CEO” (2002), “Trust Shifts from Authorities to Peers” (2005), and “Trust in Crisis” (2017).
It will continue to be challenging to do communications work when so many people find core societal institutions untrustworthy. However, the rebound in trust in journalism is a bright spot of news for public relations professionals, and particularly good for those working to secure earned media coverage and those who work in media relations.
You can view the full study slides here (PDF) along with details on the methodology Edelman uses to conduct the survey.