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Transparency and Trust in News Media

When I teach critical thinking, I often suggest that students pay a good deal of attention to the news. When news stories develop, what details do journalists choose to focus on? What details are they ignoring? Why choose to focus on certain details and not others? When new details are added or the story is updated, how does this change the narrative? As someone who regularly monitors the news for ethical analysis, this is a phenomenon I see all the time. A news item gets updated, and suddenly the focus of the piece dramatically changes. This is something that one can’t do in print media, but online media can revise and change the narrative of news after it is published.

Given the rapidly declining public trust in media, is it time for journalists and news groups to be more transparent and accountable about the narratives they choose to focus on (some may even say create) when they present a new story?

One morning last week I began to read an opinion article which is part of a series of articles written by former national NDP leader (and Prime Ministerial candidate) Tom Mulcair for CTV News. The article is about the on-going national Conservative leadership convention taking place, and mostly focuses on one candidate, Pierre Poilievre, and his attempts to appeal to voters in contrast with some of his rivals. I didn’t finish the article that morning, but when I returned to it later that afternoon, I noticed it had a new title.

What was entitled “Tom Mulcair: The Conservative leadership debates will be crucial” that morning was now titled “Tom Mulcair: The Trump side to Poilievre.” This change was surprising, but if one looks carefully, they will note that the article was “updated” an hour after being first published.

Luckily, I had the original article in my browser, and I was able to make comparisons between the updated version and the original. Does the update contain some new information that would prompt the change in title? No. The two articles are nearly identical, except for a minor typo correction. This means that with no meaningful difference, the article’s title was changed from a more neutral one to a far more politically charged title. It is no secret that Donald Trump is not popular in Canada, and so connecting one politician’s rhetoric to Trump’s is going to send a far different message and tone than “leadership debates will be crucial.” The important question, then, is why this change was made?

Is this a case of a news organization attempting to create and sell a political narrative for political purposes? To be fair, the original article always contained a final section entitled “The Trump Side to Poilievre,” but most of the article doesn’t focus on this topic. The more prominent section in the article focuses on issues of housing affordability, so why wasn’t the article changed to “Tom Mulcair: Conservatives address affordability as a theme?”

Is this a case of merely using clickbait-y headlines in the hopes of driving more attention? The point is that we don’t know, and most people would never even be aware of this change, let alone why it was made.

A recent survey of Canadians found that 49% of Canadians believe that journalists are purposely trying to mislead people by saying false or exaggerated claims, 52% believe that news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than informing the public, and 52% believe that the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan. Similar sentiments can be found about American media as well. Amusingly, the very article that reports on this Canadian poll seeks to answer who is to blame for this. Apparently, it’s because of the end of the fairness doctrine in the U.S. (something that would have no effect on Canada), the growth of punditry (who gives them airtime?), polarization, and Donald Trump. Missing, of course, is the media pointing the blame at themselves; the sloppy collection of facts, the lazy analyses, the narrow focus on sensational topics. Surely, the loss of confidence in the media has nothing to do with their own lack of accountability and transparency.

News organizations always present a perspective when they report. We do not care about literally everything that happens, so the choice to cover a story and what parts of the story to cover are always going to be a reflection of values.

This is true in news, just as it is true in science. As philosopher of science Philip Kitcher notes, “The aim of science is not to discover any old truth but to discover significant truths.” Indeed, many philosophers of science argue that the notion of objectivity in science as a case of “value freedom” is nonsense. They argue that science will always be infused with values in some form or another in order to derive what it takes to be significant truths, so the intention should be to be as transparent about these matters as possible.

Recently, in response to concerns about bias in AI, there have been calls within the field of machine learning to use data sheets for data sets that would document the motivation, collection process, and recommended uses of a data set. Again, the aim is not necessarily to eliminate all bias and values, but to be more transparent about them to increase accountability. Should the news media consider something similar? Imagine if CTV communicated, not only that there had been an update to their story, but what was included in that update and why, not unlike Wikipedia. This would increase the transparency of the media and make them more accountable for how they choose to package and communicate news.

A 2019 report by the Knight Foundation reports that transparency is a key factor in trust in media. They note that this should not only include things like notifications of conflicts of interest, but also “additional reporting material made available to readers,” that could take the form of editorial disclosure, or a story-behind-the-story, that would explain why an editor thought a story was newsworthy. Organizational scholars Andrew Schnackenberg and Edward Tomlinson suggest that greater transparency can help with public trust in news by improving their perception of competence, integrity, and benevolence.

This also suggests why the news media’s attempt to improve their image have had limited success. Much of the debate about news media, particularly when framed by the news media themselves, focuses on the obligation to “fact check.” The CBC, for example, brags that its efforts to “rebuild trust in journalism” have focused on confirming the authenticity of videos against deep fakes, a corrections and clarifications page (which contains very vague accounts of such corrections), or their efforts to fight disinformation. They say that pundits can opine on the news but not the reporters.

But what they conveniently leave out is that the degradation in trust in news is not just about getting the facts right, it’s about how facts are being organized, packaged, and delivered.

Why include these pundits? Why cover this story? Why cover it in this way? If the media truly wants to improve the public trust, they will need to begin honestly taking responsibility for their own failure to be transparent about editorial decisions, they need to take steps to be held accountable, and they need to focus on how they can be more transparent in their coverage.

The Roe Leak: Of Trust and Promises

photograph of manilla envelopewith "Top Secret" stamped on it

There is plenty to be said about the leak that brought us the news that the Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe vs. Wade, the case that legalized abortion throughout America. The most important issue is that, if this draft becomes law, many people will be forced to either give birth when they do not want to (and giving birth in America is dangerous compared to other wealthy countries, especially for women of color), or they will have to seek an illegal abortion. Not to mention that banning abortion does not decrease the number of abortions, it just makes them more dangerous (because they are illicit and less well-regulated).

My focus here is not on that issue, it is on the comparatively unimportant issue of whether whomever leaked the draft should have done so – though I won’t find an answer, I will explore what sorts of factors might help decide this. (Matt Pearce in the LA Times does an excellent job of explaining the various competing factors; there is no way that I could cover everything in this short article, and I will inevitably omit important factors.)

The leak itself has caused an outcry. SCOTUS Blog described the leak as “the gravest, most unforgivable sin.” (This might be a bit strong, considering the Supreme Court has previously ruled that slaves had no rights and Japanese-Americans could be interred in concentration camps.) The leak has also been described as an “actual insurrection” (seemingly by somebody who does not know what words mean) and as an obvious attempt to “intimidate.”

Others have offered more measured, reasonable, criticism. John Roberts, the Chief Justice, said that this leak was a “betrayal of the confidences of the Court [that] was intended to undermine the integrity of our operations.” He also noted that there was a “tradition” of “respecting the confidentiality” of such drafts, calling the leak a “breach of trust” that was an “affront” to the court. (It’s worth pointing out that leaking court opinions is not illegal – no law forbids leaking itself.) I want to suggest that even if everything Roberts has said is true, the leaker still might have been right to leak the draft.

Here is one starting point to get to Roberts’s position. Clerks apparently promise the court confidentiality, and to break a promise is itself wrong. After all, this is a reasonable promise to expect clerks to make (and this following consideration applies to judges, too): deliberating in an open way, where you can communicate trustfully with your colleagues, in theory helps to ensure open, fruitful conversation. (If a justice leaked the draft, they might not have made a promise, but the reasons to ensure open discussions apply to them.)

How exactly promises work is a topic of debate amongst philosophers, but one illuminating approach is offered by the recently deceased Joseph Raz that draws on the notion of “exclusionary reasons.”

As Raz sees it, what we should do is determined by what reasons we have. Ordinary (first-order) reasons help us decide what is best: if eating the cake will give me the nutrition required, and I want to eat it, then I should eat it if no reason exists against eating it. Now, if there is a reason not to eat it, for instance I have already had one portion and I don’t want to offend my hosts, then perhaps I shouldn’t eat it. Whether I should eat it depends on how these reasons weigh up: is it more important that I get the necessary nutrition and do what I want, or that I avoid any risk of offending my host. Promises are not like that: if I promised my wife I would only have one slice of cake, then the facts that I want it and it supplies nutrition, do not count. The promise excludes the countervailing considerations.

So, if there was a promise not to leak, then even if there are reasons to leak, perhaps one should not.

Yet even if the leak would breach a promise and constitute a betrayal, this might be the right thing to do. If a friend tells you that they are cheating on their partner, you might betray your friend’s trust by informing that partner – and trust amongst friends is important –  but tell that partner might still be the right thing to do: your friend’s partner does not deserve to be treated like this, and that might outweigh the fact that you promised your friend you wouldn’t tell.

Here are two explanations for why this might be okay. If your friend had said “I have a secret, promise me you won’t tell anybody?” you might think they are, say, planning a surprise party for a friend or thinking about a career change. You might reasonably think your promise has a certain scope, restricted to trivial things. If your friend had confessed to being a notorious murderer, you wouldn’t reasonably be expected to keep that promise, nor need you keep the promise when he tells you he has cheated on his partner. Likewise, in the case of the Supreme Court leak, we have to judge whether the promise to keep things confidential extends this far: does it cover overturning a law that has been settled for five decades, that will affect millions, and which many of the Supreme Court justices (even recently) suggested they would not overturn?

Or, perhaps sometimes it would be wrong to leak (because you promised not to) yet the best thing to do all-round is to leak it. This is a bit like the ethical problem of dirty hands: where to ensure the best result, somebody had to do something wrong. It might be that torture is wrong, yet finding out where the bomb is hidden is so important that somebody should do the awful thing and torture the suspect (this example is simplistic: torture is very ineffective). Likewise, perhaps leaking is wrong and damages the court, yet letting Roe vs. Wade be overturned is too dangerous, and somebody should get their hands dirty, do the wrong thing, and leak the draft for the greater good. This would be, in a way, deeply admirable.

The topic is complex, my point here is just that the fact that leaking is wrong, or the fact it betrays an institution, is not enough to get us to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be done. Sometimes – as tough as it may be, as much as it may damage one’s own moral standing or future career – people should betray others.

The Democratic Limits of Public Trust in Science

photograph of Freedom Convoy trucks

It isn’t every day that Canada makes international headlines for civil unrest and disruptive protests. But the protests which began last month in Ottawa by the “Freedom Convoy” have inspired similar protests around the world and led to the Canadian government declaring a national emergency and seeking special powers to handle the crisis. But what exactly is the crisis that the nation faces? Is it a far-right, conspiratorial, anti-vaccination movement threatening to overthrow the government? Or is it the government’s infringement on rights in the name of “trusting the experts”?

It is easy to take the view that protests are wrong. First, we must acknowledge that the position that the truckers are taking in protesting the mandate is fairly silly. For starters, even if they were successful at getting the Canadian Federal Government to change its position, the United States also requires that truckers be vaccinated to cross the border, so this is a moot point. I also won’t defend the tactics used in the protests including the noise, blocking bridges, etc. However, several people in Canada have pinned part of the blame for the protests on the government, and Justin Trudeau in particular, for politicizing the issue of vaccines and creating a divisive political atmosphere.

First, it is worth noting that Canada has relied more on restrictive lockdown measures as of late compared to other countries, and much of this is driven by the need to keep hospitals from being overrun. However, this is owing to long-term systemic fragility in the healthcare sector, particularly a lack of ICU beds, prompting many – including one of Trudeau’s own MPs – to call for reform to healthcare funding to expand capacity instead of relying so much on lockdown measures. One would think that this would be a topic of national conversation with the public wondering why the government hasn’t done anything about this situation since the beginning of the pandemic. But instead, the Trudeau government has only chosen to focus on a policy of increasing vaccination rates, claiming that they are following “the best science” and “the best public health advice.”

Is there, however, a possibility that the government is hoping that enough people get vaccinated and with enough lockdown measures, they can avoid having the healthcare system collapse, expect the pandemic blows over, and escape without having to address such long-term problems? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly casts any advice offered or decisions made the government in a very different light. Indeed, one of the problems with expert advice (as I’ve previously discussed here, here, and here) is that it is subject to inductive risk concerns and so the use of expert advice must be democratically-informed.

For example, if we look at a model used by Canada’s federal government, one will note how often its projections are based on different assumptions about what could happen. The model itself may be driven by a number of unstated assumptions which may or may not be reasonable. It is up to politicians to weigh the risks of getting it wrong, and not simply treat experts as if they are infallible. This is important because the value judgments inherent in risk assessment – about the reasonableness of our assumptions as well as the consequences of getting it wrong and potentially overrunning the healthcare system – are what ultimately will determine what restriction measures the government will enact. But this requires democratic debate and discussion. This is where failure of democratic leadership breeds long-term mistrust in expert advice.

It is reasonable to ask questions about what clear metrics a government might use before ending a lockdown, or to ask if there is strong evidence for the effectiveness of a vaccine mandate. But for the public, not all of whom enjoy the benefit of an education in science, it is not so clear what is and is not a reasonable question. The natural place for such a discussion would be the elected Parliament where representatives might press the government for answers. Unfortunately, defense of the protest in any form in Parliament is vilified, with the opposition being told they stand with “people who wave swastikas.” Prime Minister Trudeau has denounced the entire group as a “small fringe minority,” “Nazis,” with “unacceptable views.” However, some MPs have voiced concern about the tone and rhetoric involved in lumping everyone who has a doubt about the mandate or vaccine together.

This divisive attitude has been called out by one of Trudeau’s own MPs who said that people who question existing policies should not be demonized by their Prime Minister, noting “It’s becoming harder and harder to know when public health stops and where politics begins,” adding, “It’s time to stop dividing Canadians and pitting one part of the population against another.” He also called on the Federal government to establish clear and measurable targets.

Unfortunately, if you ask the federal government a direct question like “Is there a federal plan being discussed to ease out mandates?” you will be told that:

there have been moments throughout the pandemic where we have eased restrictions and those decisions have always been made guided by the best available advice that we’re getting from public health experts. And of course, going forward we will continue to listen to the advice that we get from our public health officials.

This is not democratic accountability (and it is not scientific accountability either). “We’re following the science” or “We’re following the experts” is not good enough. Anyone who actually understands the science will know that this is more a slogan than a meaningful claim.

There is also a bit of history at play. In 1970, Trudeau’s father Pierre invoked the War Measures Act during a crisis that resulted in the kidnapping and murder of a cabinet minister. It resulted in rounding up and arrest of hundreds of arrests without warrant or charge. This week the Prime Minister has invoked the successor to that legislation for the first time in Canadian history because…trucks. The police were having trouble moving the trucks because they couldn’t get tow trucks to help clear blocked border crossing. Now, while we can grant that the convoy has been a nuisance and has illegally blocked bridges, we’ve also seen the convoy complying with court-ordered injunctions on honking, we’ve also seen the convoy organizers opposing violence, with no major acts of violence taking place. While there was a rather odd proposal that the convoys could form a “coalition” with the parliamentary opposition to form a new government, I suspect that this is more owing to a failure to understand how Canada’s system of government works rather than a serious attempt to, as some Canadian politicians would claim “overthrow the government.”

The point is that this is an issue that has started with a government not being transparent and accountable, abusing the democratic process in the name of science, and taking advantage of the situation to demonize and delegitimize the opposition. It is in the face of this, and in the face of uncertainty about the intentions of the convoy, and after weeks of not acting sooner to ameliorate the situation, that the government claims that a situation has arisen that, according to the Emergencies Act, is a “threat to the security of Canada…that is so serious as to be a national emergency.” Not only is there room for serious doubt as to whether the convoy situation has reached such a level, but this is taking place during a context of high tension where the government and the media have demonstrated a willingness to overgeneralize and demonize a minority by lobbing as many poisoning the well fallacies as possible and misrepresenting the nature of science. The fact that in this political moment the government seeks greater power is a recipe for abuse of power.

In a democracy, where not everyone enjoys the chance to understand what a model is, how they are made, or how reliable (and unreliable) they can be, citizens have a right to know more about how their government is making use of expert advice in limiting individual freedom. The politicization of the issue using the rhetoric of “following the science,” as well as the government’s slow response and opaque reasoning have only served to make it more difficult for the public to understand the nature of the problem we face. Our public discourse has been stunted by transforming our policy conversations into a narrow one about vaccination and the risk posed by the “alt right.” But there is a much bigger, much more real problem here: the call to “trust the experts” can be used just as easily as a rallying call for rationality as it can be a political tool to demonizing entire groups of people to justify taking away their rights.

A Journalist Fakes His Own Death. Was His Decision Moral?

Image of Arkady Babchenko speaking with politicians.

Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was allegedly murdered in Ukraine by hired killers working for Vladimir Putin’s regime. A picture of his body bathed in blood was publicized. Then, in an astonishing twist of events, 24 hours later Babchenko appeared in a news conference to inform that, indeed, he was alive, and it had all been a deception.

Continue reading “A Journalist Fakes His Own Death. Was His Decision Moral?”

On Lying When There is No Truth

A photo of a Pinocchio doll.

One of St. Augustine’s enduring gifts to ethics has been Just War Theory. “Thou shalt not kill” comes with an asterisk and a long explanatory footnote.  Augustine did not leave us a Just Lie Theory. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is almost absolute.

Augustine wrote about lying because, of course, everyone does it. And not just about little things. Even Augustine’s co-religionists were saying anything they could to win converts to their side. This was bad. Lying about faith and salvation degraded and debased Truth, the foundation of Augustine’s spiritual values. Augustine worried that a person converted by a lie had never accepted the Truth, and so might not really be saved.

Continue reading “On Lying When There is No Truth”

Government Leakers: Liars, Cowards, or Patriots?

James Comey, former Director of the FBI, recently testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding conversations that he had with President Trump. The public knew some of the details from these conversations before Comey’s testimony, because he had written down his recollections in memos, and portions of these memos were leaked to the press. We now know that Comey himself was responsible for leaking the memos. He reportedly did so to force the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor. It turned out that his gamble was successful, as Robert Mueller was appointed special prosecutor to lead the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

After the testimony, President Trump blasted Comey as a Leaker. He tweeted, “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump later tweeted that Comey’s leaking was “Very ‘cowardly!’” Trump’s antipathy towards leaking makes sense against the background of the unprecedented number of leaks occurring during his term in office. It seems as if there is a new leak every day. Given the politically damaging nature of these leaks, supporters of the president have been quick to condemn them as endangering national security, and to call for prosecutions of these leakers. Just recently, NSA contractor Reality Winner was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified materials to the press. However, it is worth remembering that, during the election campaign, then-candidate Trump praised Wikileaks on numerous occasions for its release of the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.

A cynical reading of this recent chain of events suggests that the stance that government figures take towards the ethics of leaking is purely motivated by politics. Leaking is good when it damages a political opponent. Leaking is bad when it damages a political ally.  Sadly, this may be a true analysis of politicians’ shifting stances towards leakers. However, it does not answer the underlying question as to whether leaking can ever be morally permissible and, if it can be, under what circumstances might it be?

Approaches may differ, but I think it is reasonable to ask this question in a way that assumes that government leaking requires special justification. This is for two reasons. First, the leaking of classified information is almost always a violation of federal law. Leaking classified information violates the Espionage Act, which sets out penalties of imprisonment for individuals who disclose classified information to those not entitled to receive it. As a general moral rule, individuals ought to obey all laws, unless a special justification exists for their violation. General conformity to the law ensures an order and stability necessary to the safety, security, and well-being of the nation. More specifically, the Espionage Act is intended to protect the nation’s security. Leaking classified information to the press risks our nation’s intelligence operations by potentially exposing our sources and methods to hostile foreign governments.

Second, as Stephen L. Carter of Bloomberg points out, “leakers are liars,” and there is a strong moral presumption against lying. Carter provides a succinct explanation: “The leaker goes to work every day and implicitly tells colleagues, ‘You can trust me with Secret A.’ Then the leaker, on further consideration, decides to share Secret A with the world. The next day the leaker goes back to work and says, ‘You can trust me with Secret B.’ But it’s a lie. The leaker cannot be trusted.”

The strong presumption against lying flows from the idea that morality requires that we do not make an exception of ourselves in our actions. We generally want and expect others to tell us the truth; we have no right ourselves, then, to be cavalier with the truth when speaking with others. Lying may sometimes be justified, but it requires strong reasons in its favor.

Ethical leaking might be required to meet two standards: (A) the leak is intended to achieve a public good that overrides the moral presumption lying and law-breaking, or (B) leaking is the only viable option to achieving this public good. What public good does leaking often promote? Defenders of leaks often argue that leaking reveals information that the public needs to know to hold their leaders accountable for wrongdoing. Famous leaker Edward Snowden, for example, revealed information concerning the surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA); it is arguable that the public needed to know this information to have an informed debate on the acceptable limits of government surveillance and its relation to freedom and security.

Since leaking often involves lying and breaking the law, it must be considered whether other options exist, besides leaking, to promote the public good at issue. Government figures who criticize leakers often claim that they have avenues within the government to protest wrong-doing. Supporters of Snowden’s actions pointed out, however, that legal means to expose the NSA’s surveillance programs were not open to him because, as a contractor, he did not have the same whistleblower protections as do government employees and because NSA’s programs were considered completely legal by the US government at the time. Leaking appeared to be his only viable option for making the information public.

Each act of leaking appears to require a difficult moral calculation. How much damage will my leaking do to the efforts of the national security team? How important is it for the public to know this classified information? How likely is it that I could achieve my goals through legal means within the government system? Though a moral presumption against leaking may exist—you shouldn’t leak classified information for just any old reason—leaking in the context of an unaccountable government engaged in serious wrongdoing has been justified in the past, and I expect we will see many instances in the future where government leaks will be justified.

When Is It Rational to Trust a Stranger?

This post originally appeared October 13, 2015.

A father hands over the keys to his house to a stranger, his children fast asleep upstairs. Two grandparents share their living room with a traveling salesman in town for the week. A young woman falls asleep in the guest room of a man she has never met before that night. While such scenarios may sound like the beginning of a horror film, it is now a fact that millions of individuals in over one-hundred-and-ninety countries rely on online services to rent lodgings, most often in private homes. The broader sharing economy encompasses, among other things, the sharing of workspace, the sharing of automobiles, and even the sharing of home-cooked meals. In some cases what is shared is publicly owned, such as in most bicycle sharing schemes. But typically one party owns what is shared in an exchange between strangers.

All this cooperative activity between strangers is taking place in an age when parents feel the need to install “nanny-cams” in their children’s rooms, companies monitor their employee’s web surfing, and a proliferation of online services allow anyone to order a background check on anyone else. Do these apparently divergent cultural trends point to a more fundamental polarization of values? Or do they simply represent differential responses to varying social circumstances?

To the skeptic, the trustful enthusiasm of the sharing economy is a symptom of naïveté. The only cure is a painful experience with cynical breach of faith. Recent cases like the alleged sexual assault of an airbnb guest are the canaries in the coalmine. To the optimist, these sensational cases are remarkable precisely because of their paucity. What the amazingly rapid growth of the sharing economy teaches us is that human beings, in aggregate, are much more trustworthy than previously imagined.

I think that both the skeptic and the optimist have got it wrong. On the one hand, it’s silly to think that involvement in the sharing economy confers upon its participants the esteemed moral character trait of trustworthiness. On the other hand, the trusting attitudes manifested in many corners of the sharing economy are both rational and prudent, under the right conditions.

Borrowing a term from Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit, I will refer to these as the conditions for trust-responsiveness. In a paper delightfully entitled “The Cunning of Trust”, Pettit makes the case that you can have reason to trust others even if you have no antecedent knowledge about their reliability. This is because you can make them responsive to your trust simply by communicating that you trust them. This might seem like pulling a rabbit out of hat. But on reflection, the dynamic is not unfamiliar.

Pettit’s analysis rests on a relatively uncontroversial psychological claim: human beings care very much about their standing in the eyes of others, and are often moved by love of regard. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and a keen psychologist, went so far as to say that Nature has endowed Man “with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favorable, and pain in their unfavorable regard. She rendered their approbation most flattering and most agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and offensive.”

What other people think of us matters to us a great deal. In particular, a reputation for trustworthiness has both intrinsic and instrumental value. Pettit notices that when people decide to rely on us, they signal to others that they regard us as trustworthy. We are motivated to be responsive to their trust because we want that signal to be broadcast. As Pettit puts it, “The act of trust will communicate in the most credible currency available to human beings – in the gold currency of action, not the paper money of words – that the trustor believes the trustee to be truly trustworthy, or is prepared to act on the presumption that he is.”

When a person is widely perceived to be trusted, he or she gains a highly valuable status. When we manifest trusting reliance, we give the person we rely on an incentive to do the very thing we rely on them to do, because they want to cultivate and maintain that status. This is why the trust of strangers can be a rational gamble. It is never a sure bet, but it is a good bet more often than one might imagine. And this is why the skeptic is wrong. The dramatic growth of the sharing economy is predicated on fundamental facts about of human psychology.

But the optimist gets something wrong as well. There is no necessary connection between ubiquitous sharing and the dawn of a new age of trustworthiness. Trust-responsiveness and trustworthiness are altogether different animals. A trustworthy person will do what he or she is trusted to do regardless of whether anyone else is watching. This is why we hold trustworthy people in esteem and think that trustworthiness is a morally desirable trait of character. In contrast, trust-responsiveness is predicated on a desire for good opinion and is therefore, at best, morally neutral. Moreover, trust-responsiveness will only survive under certain institutional conditions.

It’s worth noting that these conditions exist par excellence in many corners of the sharing economy. The oxygen in which this economy exists is the collection and dissemination of reviews. On airbnb, for example, hosts who meet certain criteria of responsiveness, commitment, and five-star reviews are granted the coveted status of “superhost” which is signified by a red and yellow badge of approval on their profile. This status may increase demand for booking, thereby providing a financial incentive to hosts looking to juice their profits. It also works because it flatters people who self-identify as open, warm, and hospitable.

But we shouldn’t be too cynical about all this. Aristotle noticed that moral virtue could be acquired by cultivating good habits. It may be that exercise of the dispositions of trust-responsiveness can help cultivate the morally desirable trait of genuine trustworthiness. Maybe. I think the jury is still out on that one.

Our judgments about whether to expose ourselves to the hazard of trust are influenced both by our beliefs as by arational factors. Sometimes we just have a bad feeling about someone – we don’t like the cut of their jib. These kinds of knee-jerk responses can be wiser than our reflective selves, which are prone to rationalization. But just as often our “intuitive” judgements reflect unexamined biases. A 2014 Harvard Business School study found that “non-black hosts are able to charge approximately 12% more than black hosts, holding location, rental characteristics, and quality constant. Moreover, black hosts receive a larger price penalty for having a poor location score relative to non-black hosts.” Clearly we have a long way to go in learning how to trust well and without prejudice.

My own family rents out a garden-level apartment in our house on airbnb. We’ve met many interesting people, including one guest who eventually became a co-author of mine. And the money we earn helps to pay a hefty daycare bill. When we tell our friends and family that we have lent our keys to scores of people, they sometimes respond with horror and disbelief. And to be honest, in some frames of mind, we feel pretty nervous ourselves. But overall I think we are making a rational bet, and not one that presupposes a Pollyannaish faith in humanity. Of course, a truly malicious person can always rack up sterling reviews with the express purpose of lowering his victim’s defenses. But this kind of evil, like moral virtue, is rare.

My other work on trust and promises can be here.

Trust in News Media Won’t Be Easily Restored

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on November 2, 2015.

Anybody who has ever been lied to or betrayed by a friend or coworker knows just how difficult it is to re-establish trust in the offending party. Sometimes, credibility that is destroyed can never be fully restored. So it is with America’s news media, which recently got yet another dismal report on public perception of the journalism industry. The media face a stiff climb in order to get back in the citizenry’s good graces.

The annual Gallup survey of media trust shows only 40 percent of Americans have a great deal, or even a fair amount, of confidence that media report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” That matches the historic low marks recorded in election years 2012 and 2014. Over the years of the Gallup research, the lowest citizen confidence in media has come during election years. This year, of course, is not a general election year. Almost a fourth of all Americans now say they have no trust in media reporting at all.

Respondents who report they are politically independent are turning against the media in big numbers. Only 33 percent of such citizens trust the journalism industry to be fair, down a staggering 22 points in just 16 years. Independents now view the media at about the same low level as Republicans, long considered the most distrustful of media.

The most disturbing component of the study is that younger adults, ages 18 to 49, have less media trust than adults over 50. Only 36 percent of younger adults have confidence in the media, down 17 points in the last 12 years. Young adults who already have a dim view of media fairness won’t be easily won back.

The decline of younger adults trusting the media is likely a factor in the dwindling number of people who seek careers as journalists. Enrollment in college journalism programs has dropped in recent years. The highly regarded Columbia University School of Journalism is cutting staff.

Of those students in college journalism and mass media programs, approximately 70 percent are studying advertising or public relations. There was a time when PR and advertising tracks were in the less prestigious hallways of j-schools. It is hard to blame college students, however, when public relations and advertising executives are viewed as more reputable than reporters. Beyond that, reporter salaries now average only two thirds of what a public relations specialist makes, and that gap is widening. The public thinks the journalism industry is weak now, and things will only get worse given that the best and brightest in colleges aren’t seeking news careers.

Beating up on the media is now a favorite sport of most political figures, and that sustained bludgeoning is surely a factor in sinking media trust assessments. President Obama, in spite of generally beneficial news coverage during his presidential campaigns, has fought the press on several fronts during his two terms, taking particular shots at Fox News.

The presidential candidates currently getting the most traction are all ripping into the media. Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the Republican side and Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have all trashed the news media in recent weeks. Politicians’ complaining about bad press is nothing new, but the intensity and constancy of the animosity is noteworthy. It’s resonating with voters because it reinforces current public sentiment.

The American people no longer view reporters as the public surrogates they should be. Trust can’t be restored until news audiences look at reporters and sense that the journalists represent the public’s interests. Trust can’t be restored as long as the nation’s news agenda is saturated with sensational, yet low impact, stories about pop culture figures, such as Cecil the lion and a county clerk in Kentucky.

Trust can’t be restored as long as the public senses that the news media are driven more by bottom-line profit and ratings motivations than by a sense of public service, even though those two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

The trust gap between the public and media industry can be closed only when news organizations get the courage to change the vision and prevailing culture of their newsrooms. The news industry, and the nation, can’t afford another 10-point trust decline in the next 10 years. If that happens, there will no longer be a news industry. Whatever is left over will be merely part of the creative writing industry.