Erosion of Trust in Information Fosters Polarization in Politics

A familiar thread running through many of these posts is trust. A good friend who is a very successful businessman once told me that “If you don’t have trust, you don’t have a business.” I have come to believe that saying with all my heart and soul. I think every copywriter, reporter and CEO should have it tattooed on his or her navel.

Trust is the currency of communication.

TrustWhen we don’t trust the information someone is sending us, we don’t trust him, her or them. This merely seeks to divide us. We may win elections or business deals with bad information, but we lose something larger – the relationships upon which long-term success is built.

Recent surveys indicate that the credibility of advertising and media (Pew, Gallup, Neiesen, Lab42 studies) is severely eroding. Both have fallen to about 25 percent. Said another way, three in four people automatically discount what they read, see or hear through the media, whether it’s programming, news, or advertising. By the way, that also is roughly the same percentage of people who falsify information on social media profiles.

How can we restore trust?

A good place to start is over in that far corner of the ring called truth and fairness. If you don’t believe “truth” is obtainable because it is too subjective, then let’s strive for fairness and balance.

I asked several friends, “what would you do to restore trust in the sources of information?” Here are some of the suggestions:

  1. Stop exaggerating to make your point. Yes, exaggeration sometimes gets attention. But it undermines acceptance.
  2. Acknowledge limitations of your information or knowledge.
  3. Be honest, open and fair. Don’t try to twist the facts to make a point. Selective regurgitation is not the way to get the gist of something right.
  4. Don’t withhold information that materially changes the meaning of something.
  5. Support your case with specifics. But don’t misrepresent their meaning to suit your ends. We’ve all seen too many election ads that take quotes out of context to twist the true meaning of what someone said. We’ve all seen too many people waving documents that purport to prove something is true when it is false.
  6. Cite original sources. Do your research. Don’t repeat rumors. And don’t just trust what a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend said. By the time something is filtered through a newspaper reporter who is quoted in a blog which is reposted in a tweet and then distributed in an email rant, the original meaning may have been lost. I had a conversation with my barber before the last election in which he claimed “Obama is a known communist.” Hmmmm. I thought he was a Democrat. So I asked the barber what made him think that. “Somebody wrote a book about it. Everyone knows it.” “What’s the name of the book?”  “I can’t remember.” “Well, can you tell me one thing he’s done that is communistic?” No response.
  7. Make it clear what is fact and what is your opinion of the facts.
  8. Acknowledge different sides of an argument and hold all sides to the same standard of truthfulness. Try to illuminate, not obfuscate. Nothing is more frustrating than when someone doesn’t acknowledge your point of view, but keeps spouting sound bites to make his or her point of view. This does nothing to advance the discussion, but leads to isolationism and gridlock.
  9. Don’t repeat falsehoods, even in jest. A surprising number of people get their news these days from “comedy news shows” that blur the distinction between fact and fantasy.
  10. Be suspicious of ad hominem attacks and avoid generalizations. Treat the other side with respect.

Counterfeiting the Currency of Communication

The partisan pursuit of self-interest often gets in the way of these principles. Unfortunately, when people cross these ethical lines, they undermine the trust that binds people together. People begin to trust only those that share their world view. Compromise is victimized. Politics become polarized. Winning arguments by counterfeiting the currency of communication is a prescription for disaster. The government won’t let people counterfeit its currency. Why do so many human beings willingly counterfeit their own?

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One thought on “Erosion of Trust in Information Fosters Polarization in Politics

  1. I think item number 10 contains the other aspect that is missing: respect. As civil discourse has disappeared, so has having respect for others who hold different viewpoints. It’s as if we are just inches away from considering “the other side” as less than human. Some people are already there; that’s what allows a person to kill other people. Without trust and respect, we run the risk of ever more atrocities being committed.

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