Who do you trust? Government? Media? Big business?

A new global survey measuring levels of trust in traditional institutions shows people have little confidence in those elements of society they once looked to for support. Politicians, press, and profiteers have fallen on hard times in the trust department in recent decades, and despite some improvement this year, the gap between the trusting “informed” minority and the untrusting general public is widening.

Where has trust gone? Hundreds of years ago the three “estates of the realm” or political classes were considered the Church, the aristocracy, and the commoners. (British parliamentarian Edmund Burke described the press as the fourth estate, since it was the power that held the others in check).

Since that time the estates have mutated. The Church is no longer the influence it once was, the aristocracy has broken down into government and business, and the peasants have become a polarized muddle of a) a minority who trust traditional institutions and b) the mainstream who are dismissive and drawn to populist movements like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

If the press is the fourth estate, it’s regrettable how it has seen similar disintegration. The alienated mainstream segment of society has been tuning out of traditional media for some time, which should be seen as troubling. The way people understand their institutions has always depended on how the press describe those institutions.

For a time, the world was becoming globally hard-wired and news was able to be delivered everywhere in the world in real time.

But the evolution of the Internet and social media changed that. The more people saw and learned about their institutions, the less they liked it. Trust in the estates who ran the world, including traditional media, declined, and the trust gap widened between those who consider themselves “informed” and the general public.

If there’s a glimmer of hope, it is that trust in traditional media are up this year. The reason why may be paradoxical: As use of social media remains high, trust in that same social media is plummeting amid concerns about fake news.

Social media use is up but trust is down. Trust in traditional media is growing, but readership is dropping. How do you square this circle?

As we leave Catholic press month, the necessity of Catholic media has never been so important. Supporting trustworthy media that provide reliable news content is a wiser decision than tuning out altogether.

I once attended a presentation by Catholic media professor David Mindich on some alarming trends concerning young people – those under 40. He argued our democracy is on the brink of a crisis as more and more young people turn their backs on political news. Not only were they tuning out as news consumers, but as citizens, and as Catholics.

Society suffers, as does the Church and our respective missions in the Church, when young people, the voters, the parents, and the news consumers and makers of tomorrow, withdraw from civic awareness and participation. Our Church and our democracy rely on informed individuals who have ownership and belonging and have a sense of empowerment.

Young people are full of idealism, intelligence, and spirituality, said Mindich, but if they are ignorant of politics and distrustful of media, they are ceding power to those willing to take advantage of it. They are rendering themselves powerless.

Experts once said our news consumption habit is basically fixed by the time we reach our mid-20s. In other words, people who are uninterested in news when they’re young don’t become news consumers when they’re older.

I hope that is no longer true. The Internet and social media have contributed to the decline in news consumption, but as people acknowledge social media’s limitations, they may return to the media that empower them politically and spiritually.