Do You Have Trust Issues?

I went to two events this week that I think are worthy of some thought and discussion. The first provided some real insight into how government ought to, and often does work. What I learned at the second event—well, it is cause for concern for anybody connected with government, business, or the news media. And taken together—let’s just say that the content of the second event doesn’t make a lot of sense when taken in the context of the first.

At the first event, a Legislative Workshop sponsored by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and CSAC, I saw a roomful of County Supervisors, City Councilmembers, Mayors and staff people from various levels of government, gathered to hear State Legislators discuss common regional problems. Things like traffic, air quality, water and crime don’t follow jurisdictional boundaries. That’s why regional cooperation is so important.

The people at this event were all dedicated public servants, working together to try to make things better. At events like this, people can discuss an issue and maybe learn something about that issue from someone else’s perspective. They may have different ideas about what to do, but at least they share a common goal, and they share a willingness to try!

This type of event is also about building the relationships and trust that are at the heart of good government. People from different jurisdictions have to know and trust each other so they can work on solving regional problems. And it helps if they have the public’s trust too. The problem is they don’t.

And that brings me to the other event I went to—a briefing by Edelman Public Relations about their annual “Trust Barometer.” Edelman, a worldwide PR firm, does a series of polls asking about public trust in Government, the Media, Business and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

I won’t go into all the details—the report is lengthy—you can find it here if you want to read it yourself. But—suffice it to say that government already ranked pretty low on the trust barometer—and it fell again this year. People don’t trust the government. Local Government fares a little better than state and federal government does—but not much.

With recent headlines about California State Senators indicted for allegedly taking bribes, or convicted of felonies for not living in their district, and a certain traffic jam in New Jersey, I suppose there is reason to be skeptical about Government.  But these things are anomalies. That’s WHY they make headlines.

Journalism 101 says if a dog bites a man it’s not news, if a man bites a dog it IS news because it’s not the norm. Anomalies and negativity sell, they always have but the relatively recent phenomenon of media bifurcation doesn’t help. If you watch Fox News, President Obama is always wrong. If you watch MSNBC, Governor Chris Christie is always wrong. The negativity flows in what seems to be a constant stream, even if truly bad government is still an anomaly—compared to the majority of dedicated government officials who are trying to do the right thing.

So it is frustrating, as someone whose job is to promote the good things that government does, to always be swimming upstream.  Especially because—while government ranks pretty low on the Edelman trust barometer, so too does the news media. Trust in the major news sources also fell this year.

Apparently, the only time we believe the media is when it’s reporting something negative about the government.  And that’s sad—because—most government officials, elected and staff, are much more like the people I encountered in the first event I’m writing about, than the ones who have earned the distrust described in the second!

About: Gregg Fishman:
Gregg Fishman is the Communications Coordinator for the California State Association of Counties.

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