Friday, September 17, 2010

Our fleeting faith in institutions

Galen Barnett, The OregonianGalen Barnett, The Oregonian

The General Social Survey has been tracking American attitudes and opinions on political and social issues since 1972. The survey just recently released its preliminary data for 2008, which, among other things, confirms some established trend lines about the confidence Americans have in their major institutions -- science, religion, government, the military, business, TV, the press. The short version: We're losing faith. And not just in organized religion. Americans' collective confidence in organized institutions, save one, continues to erode.

Since 1976, only one institution has gained ground in trust among the American people: the military. One might conjecture that the contentious social upheaval of Vietnam artificially depressed Americans' attitudes about the military, but it's not surprising that, all politics and partisanship aside, the military would grow in trust among Americans overall since 9/11. The men and materiel in the field (yes, yes, not necessarily the strategies and tactics they've been asked to undertake and with notable exceptions -- from the failed Iranian hostage rescue to Abu Ghraib and many more) have been worthy of admiration. And even so, those expressing a "great deal" of confidence in the military barely cracks 50 percent.

It goes downhill from there.

Confidence in the scientific community and medicine is lower than it's ever been, but they now enjoy about twice the level of trust as organized religion. That's a phenomenal cultural change. Those now declaring their religion to be "none" have climbed to 15 percent. That would make them the third largest "religious" group behind Catholics and Baptists.

And why wouldn't our collective confidence in financial and corporate entities have declined? From Enron to AIG, there's no reason to think Americans' trust in such institutions would not wither.

Our confidence in government entities has eroded little, but it was dismal to begin with.

Which brings us to the press. Us. The numbers expressed in the survey are shaming to the media. Perhaps (whistling past the cemetery?) the modest level of trust (let's face it, 29 percent isn't "high" to begin with) in 1976 was a function of "All the President's Men" and the bump in pride and confidence in American journalism it instilled (J-school enrollments grew after that). But as I'm sure many of you will note, why should such numbers surprise anyone -- in or out of the industry. From Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke to yellow cake and weapons of mass destruction, there are stories and Web sites galore attesting to the sins of the Fourth Estate. It is, in all gravity, an imperfect medium.

For the survey as a whole, the numbers speak for themselves. Collectively, we've lost trust in our institutions and their ability to improve our lives. It's not about our politics. It's not about right or left. It's more than that. But we're all in that maelstrom together.



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