The authors of the annual Edelman report on people's trust in major institutions should be forgiven for declaring a bankruptcy in their most recent annual survey, published last week.
They had already used "Trust in Crisis" as a title of the report back in 2017, so they couldn't say that again. And bankruptcy often follows a crisis that only gets worse.
This year's report may have been the most pessimistic ever, but it initially grabbed my attention because of its potentially hopeful conclusions about business.
The report's main point is that of the four big institutions people were asked about — government, nonprofits, media and business — only business was thought of as both ethical and competent.
Maybe business leaders really are well-positioned to address big problems in the world, such as making sure everyone can be included in the recovery from the pandemic.
It turned out, though, that people around the world surveyed by Edelman didn't necessarily think good things about American businesses.
Business in general only barely crossed the bar into the category of trustworthy, according to the Edelman methodology, but American business fell short. Trust in American-based companies around the globe had never been lower in the 21 years Edelman has been doing this survey.
This is not to pick on American business and business leaders, by the way. Trust in the media increased in most of the 27 countries surveyed by Edelman this last year, but not here. American media landed firmly on the not-trusted end of the scale, and the share of Americans who trust the media slipped again.
The publisher of this study, Edelman, is a big consulting firm primarily known for its public relations practice. The firm calls it the "trust barometer" and, while it's far from the only good source of information on trust and reputation, it's usually worth reading.
They now have years of data to reveal the trends — not that the trendlines ever seem to show anything other than more decline. The firm surveys a lot of people around the globe, too, showing how trust is faring in various countries.
In the U.S., it's not looking so good.
For one thing, trust rolled off the table for supporters of President Donald Trump after the November election — which is no surprise given that the president repeatedly claimed that the election was fraudulent.
Another point that stood out is the big gap in trust between what Edelman calls the informed public — by which it means college-educated, higher-income people who follow public policy and business news — and the public at large.
A double-digit gap in overall trust levels is common throughout the world, but here in the United States it's 18 percentage points. The informed-public segment can just barely be said to trust their institutions, but when you include everybody the score fell well below that.
Think about that for a second. Americans don't trust businesses, don't trust nonprofits, don't trust their media sources of information and they really don't trust their governments.
None of this seems particularly surprising, of course. We have seen the images of all the people who rushed the U.S. Capitol the first week of January to force Congress to overturn a presidential election, which they thought was rigged even though dozens of legal challenges to it failed.
No one can argue that business hasn't earned some of its distrust, either, with self-inflicted wounds such as the Wells Fargo & Co. fake-account scandal of the recent past.
It's a little difficult to even imagine what the road back from here even looks like. But it's important to realize that the recovery in trust won't just require political leaders, CEOs or news publishers to change what they do. A lot of this is really up to us.
Edelman framed this report as an information bankruptcy, not necessarily a bankruptcy of trust. One term it uses to describe this sweeping problem is information hygiene, a personal practice like regularly flossing your teeth.
And it turns out we are very sloppy people with bad information hygiene.
Good hygiene means being well-informed and on top of the news. It means seeking to verify information and avoiding bubbles or echo chambers where all a person will ever hear is more information that fits with what they already thought.
About six out of 10 people in the survey said they forward news items they find interesting. Only a small fraction of them had good information practices, though, suggesting that many routinely forwarded garbage.
Part of the problem is social media, of course, which are systems designed only to keep users' eyes on the screen, not well-informed. These systems will know what keeps the user really engaged, as evidenced by what the user is doing, like commenting on items or sharing them. News or commentary that makes the user mad seems to really work.
One of the reasons this works so well is confirmation bias, a mental quirk that causes people to like or only read information that fits with what they already know or believe. This was a problem before Mark Zuckerberg ever thought to turn an online university student directory into what's become the modern Facebook.
Figuring out what's a trusted source of news and information would be much easier if people didn't have to do daily battle with their own, deeply flawed brains.
There is no great answer to the question of how to find information that can be trusted other than to read widely, from as many different sources as you can find.
As for those who think they have too much to do to have any time for reading, well, that's never been a good excuse. The costs of being ill-informed seem to only be going up.