Why Americans Don’t Fully Trust Many Who Hold Positions of Power

19-Sep-2019 10:10 AM EDT, by Pew Research Center

Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 19, 2019) – The public gives high scores to military leaders, public school principals and police officers on empathy, transparency and ethics, yet they rate members of Congress and leaders of technology companies lower, according to a new Pew Research Center report that examines public confidence in eight groups of people who hold positions of power and responsibility in America.

The new survey looked at trust in members of Congress, local elected officials, K-12 public school principals, journalists, military leaders, police officers, leaders of technology companies and religious leaders. It probed public views about several aspects of confidence in performance and outlook, such as whether these groups care about people, handle resources responsibly or provide accurate information to the public.

The survey of 10,618 panelists, conducted Nov. 27 to Dec. 10, 2018, on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, finds that notable shares of the public give people in these powerful jobs low ratings when it comes to behaving ethically, dealing with ethical problems in their ranks and admitting mistakes. Half or more of Americans think these people act unethically at least some of the time, ranging from 50% who believe this about military leaders to 81% who feel members of Congress act unethically “some,” or “all or most of the time.” Additionally, 77% believe this about the leaders of technology companies and 69% think this about religious leaders.

Meanwhile, a third or more of Americans think that wrongdoers face serious consequences only a little of the time or less often. Indeed, majorities believe that members of Congress (79%), local elected officials (57%), leaders of technology companies (55%) and journalists (54%) admit mistakes and take responsibility for them only a little of the time or none of the time. Some 49% say the same of religious leaders. However, U.S. adults have relatively high levels of confidence that these people will perform key aspects of their duties (for example, that leaders of technology companies build products and services that enhance people’s lives) “some of the time” or more often, and that they will handle resources responsibly.

Generally, the public has the most confidence in the way K-12 public school principals, military leaders and police officers operate when it comes to caring about people, providing fair and accurate information to the public and handling resources responsibly. Some 84% think principals care about the students they serve “some of the time” or “all or most of the time.” Some 79% think police officers care about them at that level of frequency, and 73% have the same level of confidence in military leaders. The public places somewhat lower – but still relatively high – levels of confidence in religious leaders, journalists and local elected officials.

“Trust is not an on-off proposition for Americans,” said Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center. “They have calibrated and nuanced views about different groups and the way they conduct themselves. What gnaws at them most is a sense that those who hold positions of power and responsibility don’t act ethically as often as they should or face serious consequences when they are caught doing wrong. They also have a sense that many of these key actors don’t admit their mistakes and take responsibility for them.”

Among the key findings:

Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party are less likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to believe journalists perform key parts of their jobs “all or most of the time” or “some of the time.”

  • 31% of Republicans and Republican leaners believe journalists fairly cover all sides of an issue at least some of the time, while 74% of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic party say the same – a 43-percentage-point difference in opinion between the two groups.

Black Americans and Hispanics are more skeptical than white people about the performance of police officers. Roughly seven-in-ten white Americans (72%) say police officers treat racial and ethnic groups equally at least some of the time. By comparison, half of Hispanics and just 33% of black adults say the same.

Members of Congress and leaders of technology companies do not enjoy the same level of public confidence as other key groups when it comes to several performance attributes.

  • 48% of adults think technology executives care about people “all or most of the time” or “some of the time,” and 50% feel that way about members of Congress. By contrast, 84% of K-12 principals have that level of empathy.
  • 46% of Americans think members of Congress provide fair and accurate information that often, and 61% think this about leaders of technology firms. Some 74% say police officers provide fair and accurate information with that frequency.

The public gives relatively high marks to all eight groups when asked about a key mission of each group, with military leaders ranking the highest and members of Congress the lowest.

  • 90% of adults believe military leaders do a good job preparing military personnel to protect the country “all or most of the time” or “some of the time.”
  • 83% think technology company leaders build products and services that enhance lives.
  • 84% say police do a good job protecting people from crime “all or most of the time” or “some of the time.”
  • 62% say police officers do a good job treating racial and ethnic groups equally at least some of the time.

Partisan gaps apply to people’s judgments about military and religious leaders; Republicans are more positive than Democrats.

  • Republicans are 20 points more likely than Democrats to say military leaders handle the resources available in a responsible way some of the time or more often (89% vs. 69%).
  • Three-quarters of Republicans say religious leaders provide fair and accurate information to the public at least some of time, compared with just 54% of Democrats who say the same.

The margin of sampling error for survey findings featured in this report is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points. See methodology for further details.

Read the full report: https://www.people-press.org/2019/09/19/why-americans-dont-fully-trust-many-who-hold-positions-of-power-and-responsibility/

Methodology: https://www.people-press.org/2019/09/19/trust-in-institutions-methodology/

Survey Topline: https://www.people-press.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/09/TFD_2019.09.19_Trust-In-Institutions_TOPLINE.pdf

ALSO SEE: A blog post about how Americans’ perceptions about unethical behavior connect to the way they think about people in powerful roles: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/19/americans-perceptions-of-unethical-behavior-shape-views-of-people-in-powerful-roles/

For more information, or to arrange an interview, please contact Dana Page at 202.419.4372 or dpage@pewresearch.org.


Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on our Fact Tank blog.

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