The “trust of publics” or “public trust” can be defined as a process and outcome of a publicly generated, communicative, complexity-reducing mechanism within which publicly perceptible individuals, organizations, and other social systems act as “trust objects.” Public trust is generated and subjected to change within a mediated, public communication process in which “trust subjects” have their future-oriented expectations shaped by past experiences (see Bentele 1994; Bentele & Seidenglanz 2005). “Trust” has been defined by a variety of disciplines in social studies (sociology, psychology, communication, political science, etc.). The emphasis is put on interpersonal trust, hence, that obtaining between individuals. An important conception of trust is presented by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who defines trust as a “complexity-reducing mechanism,” as a risky prior concession to future events (Luhmann 1973, 23ff). As “personal trust” it represents the basis of any social relationship. In information and communication societies it is mainly relevant as “public trust.”
Credibility can be conceptualized as a sub-phenomenon of trust and can be defined as a feature attributed to individuals, institutions, or their communicative products (written or oral texts, audiovisual presentations) by somebody (recipients) with regard to something (event, factual matters, etc.; see Bentele 1988).
Losses Of Trust In Modern Societies
While in archaic societies and other social formations prior to the civil society, a population’s trust in their political leadership was often an unquestioned given, the civil society carries within itself institutional doubt. In the system of parliamentary democracy both parliament and government depend upon the temporally limited trust of the voters. Based upon fundamental distrust (e.g., regarding the abuse of power), this trust is implemented in the form of control systems. Thus, the political systems of many modern societies hold formal and legal procedures (e.g., asking for a “vote of confidence,” passing a “vote of no confidence”) whose purpose it is to regulate situations in which the trust shown by elections has crumbled. In totalitarian systems, distrust of the political leadership often tends to be particularly pronounced among broad levels of the population. Loyalty and conformity are controlled solely by state power and centralized, barely credible media organs.
However, western parliamentary democracies, too, have had to witness a general decrease in trust within the last 25 to 40 years regarding politics, many branches of the economy, and the media itself (see Reitze & Ridder 2006). On the face of it, crises of trust in politics and the economy are linked with the accumulation of scandals made public. The possibilities of “trust maintenance” or of “trust rebuilding” by means of communication, that is, public relations (PR) and strategic communication management, are a vital challenge for publicly perceptible individuals and organizations, such as politicians, political parties, CEOs, companies, etc.
General Theoretical Approaches And Empirical Results
Four important general approaches toward a theory of (interpersonal) trust can be distinguished: those of Luhmann (1973, 2000), Barber (1983), Coleman (1990), and Giddens (1990). More recent interpretations (see Misztal 1996; Sztompka 1999) add little new to the discussion. Both Luhmann and Giddens conceptualize the function of trust for the social system as a kind of “top-down approach,” in which trust is understood as an important “mechanism” and as a constituent component necessary for the functioning of a society. Coleman and Barber, on the other hand, start out from a “bottom-up approach,” that is, with the individual, specifying trust as an attitude toward other human beings and organizations.
The majority of the approaches stemming from social psychology, as well as work done in the economic domain, especially business management, follow the latter path (see Petermann 1996; Ripperger 2003). Since the 1950s in the USA and since the 1960s in Germany and other European countries, survey institutes have collected data on the question of how far politicians and political and other organizations are met with trust by the population (see Listhaug & Miller 1990; Vercic 2000). Political institutions (parliament, federal government) enjoy more trust than do individual politicians and parties. With growing age, trust in political institutions increases. Party preference and political interest are crucial determinants of the attribution of trust. So far, little research has been done into the social mechanisms of trust attribution (building, loss, and crises of trust).
A Theory Of Trust By Publics
For PR and, thus, communication studies, trust is mainly relevant as “public trust.” Trust has long been recognized as a vital goal of PR. Only since the beginning of the 1990s has PR studies begun to devote more serious attention to it (see Ronneberger & Rühl 1992). On the one hand and with regard to recipients of (individual) “acts of trust,” the term “public trust” refers to the attribution of different degrees of trust or distrust to publicly perceptible individuals and organizations, that is, agents and social systems. In this sense, trust is closely linked with the psychological term “attitude.” On the other hand, the possibility of observing publicly perceptible agents and systems in the first place is produced and controlled by actively organized communication (journalism, media, PR). Thus, in that sense, “public trust” refers to the social mechanisms of public communication by which the attitude of agents’ trust is generated. Trust building or processes of losing trust, however, rely on mediators and interpreters of information, i.e., on media and PR agents that, after all, produce and process the lion’s share of socially relevant (public) information. It is the purpose of a “theory of public trust” to describe and explain this nexus systematically and empirically.
Such a theory was for the first time sketched out by Bentele (1994) and has since been substantiated empirically. First of all, the theory of public trust differentiates various elements in the public trust process – a process understood as a sub-dimension of public communication: trust subjects, trust objects, trust mediators, facts, and events, as well as texts and messages. Usually, trust subjects (trusters) are individuals, but they can also be groups or organizations. Trust objects are individuals – in which case we call them trustees – and organizations. More extensive social systems (the health system of a society, the political system, the economic system, etc.) can be trust objects too. Those agents that intentionally or unintentionally mediate trust to the trust subjects within the process of public communication are called trust mediators. They can be individuals taking key professional roles in the process of public communication, such as journalists and PR professionals. Usually, however, they act within an organizational context, that is, editorial offices or PR departments of organizations.
Thus, organizations, too, act as intermediaries of trust. The relationships between PR and journalism itself depend on mutual attributions of trust. Other important elements in this process, without which these attributions would be beyond analysis, are events and factual matters and their semiotic equivalents in texts and themes. The theory distinguishes four types of trust: (interpersonal) basic, (public) personal, organizational, and system. It is presumed that there are various trust factors (e.g., problem-solving competencies, adequacy of communication, communicative consistency, transparency, etc.) that are capable of creating high, empirically measurable levels of trust if they appear to a very marked degree or jointly. Low-level occurrence or absence of these factors, however, generates low trust or even distrust. Since trust is always produced or damaged within a process, dynamic mechanisms can be observed: the trust-building process, for instance, takes longer and requires various positive reassurances until a high level of trust is achieved.
Loss of trust, however, can – often in association with other mechanisms such as generalizations – occur very rapidly and result from merely a single crisis. The most important cause of loss of trust is seen in the trust subjects’ perception of discrepancies, such as between information and actual fact (e.g., lies), between verbal statements and actions, between diverging actions within the same institution, between norms and statements or actions, etc. Discrepancies are generated intentionally or unintentionally by the communication or the actions of agents, or have a latent existence in the (political, economic) system. In the process of public trust building these discrepancies are transported and picked out as topics by the journalistic system, which corresponds to the critical function of the media. On the other hand, due to the adherence of journalists and the media to the logic of news value, the discrepancies can be reinforced (frequently the case), weakened (rarely the case), or produced in the first place by the media. While the last empirically occurs, it defies the norm of objective reporting. Journalistic news factors (see Staab 1990) such as negativism, conflict, and controversy, as well as certain journalistic routines, are capable of fostering media construction and the perception of discrepancies at the reception end. Published conflicts are particularly prone to transport, reinforce, and generate discrepancies and, thus, to effect the public’s loss of trust in agents from the economy, politics, and society.
Voters’ support and, thus, political power as well as economic success depend on attributions of trust by various publics. With regard to the future, the relevance of the trust of publics is almost certain to increase in the context of the information and communication societies. This is due to the process of mediatization and the increased significance that the media, especially television and online media, have assumed in the transmission of any content. All information about the world is received indirectly through the media: thus, trust becomes a structural necessity of modern societies.
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