There was a poll that came out ... this week that a third of all Americans think violence is sometimes justified to achieve their political ends. As we ... run into a bumpy time, that is truly scary. And it grows out of a sense of distrust. People don't trust the institutions. They don't think they're legitimate. They don't trust each other.
And beneath our political problems, there's just this epic catastrophe of distrust running through society, and that's just a very hard thing to turn around. It's the work of a generation to turn around that much distrust. And it comes down to each of us behaving in trustworthy ways, extending kindness to each other and extending it on a massive scale. And we have not done a good job of that.
--David Brooks, political commentator for The New York Times, during an interview for NPR's All Things Considered (Kelly, 2020 October 9)
To be human is to live in relationship with others (Buber, 1923). Most people will agree that trust is an essential ingredient for harmonious interpersonal relationships and life in society (Rotter, 1967; Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Communication research has linked the concept of trust to the concepts of public opinion, ethos and source credibility, trustworthiness, distrust, lies, deception, impression management, uncertainty reduction, relationship building and maintenance, truth-bias and truth-telling, among others. A look at the history of the measurement of trust in communication research reveals our very complicated relationship with the concept. Some of the first measures of trust appear in wartime public opinion polls during the 1940s. This type of research became institutionalized into commercial firms that measured people's level of trust in different sources. Information data gathered from this research in turn helped clients formulate strategies that would support their efforts and render them more trustworthy in the eyes of the public. The research focused on building trust as an aid in the self-presentation and impression management of the client or research sponsor. Unsurprisingly, the work of communication professionals became synonymous with propaganda, the manipulation of public opinion, and the manufacturing of consent. The metaphor of the "dark side" of communication advanced by Spitzberg and Cupach (1994), though they used it in the context of interpersonal relationships, seems a propos here. The phenomena of front groups, astroturfing, and social media trolls illustrate extreme forms of the "dark side" of communication that we see today. As a society, our preoccupation with "fake news," artificial intelligence, automation and bots, among other concerns, reflects a public orientation toward distrust. This generalized distrust has created "a society on permanent alert" (D'Olimpio, 2016). Those of us working in communication, whether in academia, professional practice, or as producers in media and technology industries, must recognize how much we may have contributed to this problem. The goal of this essay, then, is to examine how communication research has approached the concept of trust by examining the measures that we have developed, particularly in the areas of mass communication and media...