Trust in the institutions of democratic states is on the decline. This trend has been observed for a long time. Because of contradictory survey data, the decline is hard to specify in absolute termins. However, a relative loss of trust can be found across countries. Figure 1 shows the levels of trust in various institutions over the last four decades in the USA. Unfortunately, similar time series data is not available for Germany.
The measurement of trust in the parliament and in the government is not trivial. In these cases, trust in the institution and trust in specific parties and politicians interfere. For this reason, I concentrate my analysis on trust in the news media. A loss of trust has been found here as well.
If one analyzes trust in the news media across countries, an interesting phenomenon becames apparent: trust in the news media (here: the printed press) is often higher in countries with an authoritarian regime than in countries with a democratic regime. In figure 2, trust in the printed press is plotted against Freedom House Press Scores. Freedom House Press Scores is a measure of the freedom of the press in a country. The low level of trust in the printed press in countries with a democratic regime can hardly be explained by a lack of quality of the press. After all, countries like Vietnam and China have higher levels of trust - even though the press cannot report freely in these countries.
How can the phenomenon be explained?
An emancipative value change delivers an explanation. The theory of emcancipative value change has been developed by Ronald Inglehart and Chris Welzel. With increasing material well-being and better access to education, people increasingly develop critical attitudes towards religion, traditional roles, and institutions. Instead, they value self-fulfillment and individualism. An emancipative value change might explain critical attitudes towards institutions like the press. Following this line of argument, it would not be the declining quality of the press that led to decreasing levels of trust. Instead, people apply stricter criteria in their evaluation of the news media. However, such an effect cannot be found empirically.
The relation between trust and the development of emancipative values is illuminating in the present context: in the beginning, increasing levels of emancipative values are accompanied by a rapid loss of trust (figure 5). However, this relationship is not linear. There is no association with trust for countries with higher levels of emancipative values.
Another non-linar relationship can be found between the degree of freedom of the press and emancipative values. In the beginning, an emancipative value change has no impact on freedom of the press. A democratization only emerges with higher levels of emancipative values (figure 6).
Taken together, the following explanation might explain the phenomenon: an emancipative value change is especially effective in authoritarian regimes. Here, trust in the often censored new media is undermined by rising levels of emancipative values. This loss of trust contributes to a democratization. An emancipative value change has little effect on trust in countries with a democratic regime.
Müller, J. (in preparation). Aktive Bürger durch öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunk? In: Jörg Hagenah & Heiner Meulemann (Hrsg.): Mediatisierung der Gesellschaft. Münster: Lit Verlag.
Müller, J. (2010). The (Ir)relevance of Trust in the News Media: Dynamics, Causes, and Consequences of Trust in the News Media in Democratic and Authoritarian Regimes. PhD thesis.
Held, M., Müller, J., Deutsch, F., Grzechnik, E. & Welzel, C. (2009). Value Structure and Dimensions: Empirical Evidence from the German World Values Survey. World Values Research, 2(3), 56-78.
Müller, J. (2010). Emancipative Value Change and Trust in the News Media in Democratic and Authoritarian Regimes. Paper presented at the 60th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, Singapore.
Müller, J. (2010). The Effect of European Public Service Television Broadcasting on Political Knowledge and Political Activism. Paper presented at the International Conference "Europe and the Media" of the European Sociological Association, Research Network 18, Athens.
Müller, J. (2010). Causes and Consequences of News Media Use in Western Democracies. Paper presented at the 3. Workshop of the MLFZ, Cologne.