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Americans trust CEOs more than their own government, survey finds

Report tracks loss of trust in institutions
Report: "Epidemic of misinformation" is eroding trust in institutions 06:33

Businesses and CEOs have a pivotal new role to play in rebuilding public trust in information and bridging the United States' growing partisan divide. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer update, 61% of people surveyed expressed trust in businesses — significantly higher than the number who trusted governments or the media. Trust in governments worldwide dropped to 53%, after seeing an 11-point surge in May during the coronavirus pandemic

The latest survey, which was completed by 33,000 people in 28 countries, indicates a growing "epidemic of misinformation," according to Edelman CEO Richard Edelman. 

"We have an infodemic, and in short, we don't trust the sources of information, meaning we don't trust the media, it's seen as politicized, biased, and we don't trust the people who are speaking," he said on CBSN Wednesday.

The "infodemic" has driven trust in news sources to an all-time low. Social media was the least trusted, at 35%, followed by owned media (41%), and then traditional media, which saw the largest drop in trust, to 53%. 

A post-election Edelman poll from December found a 39-point gap between Biden voters' and Trump voters' trust in media. The two sides also had very different views of the government.

"Trump voters do not trust the government. The Biden voters do," Edelman explained. "The essence of the difference in America is, historically, in a crisis —pandemic— we have trusted government, and we have trusted media for sources of information."

More than half of Americans — 57% — feel the country is in the midst of a "cold civil war."

In the United States, trust in the national government hovers around 40%. Trust in companies headquartered in the U.S. is at 48%, down 3 points from 2020.

"Trust has actually gone local," Edelman said. "Business is the most trusted institution, but 'my employer' and 'my employer CEO' and even 'my employer publication' — newsletter — is more trusted than media."

Just over 60% of people listed communications from their employer as a trusted news source, more than either the national government or the media. "My employer CEO" was the most trusted source of information for both Trump and Biden voters. 

More than three-quarters of respondents worldwide, and 72% in the U.S., said they trusted their employer "to do what is right."

The overall high level of trust in employers and businesses is a stark contrast to the Edelman Trust Barometer's September update, which noted "just 14% of employees trust CEOs or senior managers to lead the return to work," and only half believed their offices were safe. 

Rapid advances in COVID-19 vaccines and innovations in work, partially forced by the pandemic, may help explain the rise in trust.

"It's a big responsibility now for businesses to be part of the information flow — not replacing mainstream media, but supplementing with quality information that the employees can use in their everyday lives," Edelman said.

With the responsibility also comes new demands of businesses and their CEOs.

"The events of this past year reinforced business' responsibility to lead on societal issues such as upskilling workers and racial justice," Edelman said in the press release. "It has also led to new expectations of business expanding its remit into unfamiliar areas, such as providing and safeguarding information."

Nine in 10 respondents said they want CEOs to speak out about racial issues, the pandemic and job automation, while 53% of respondents believed that corporations need to fill the information void "when news media is absent." 

More than two-thirds also said they rely on businesses to step in when the government falls short.

To help repair the mistrust in institutions, Edelman said practicing "good information hygiene" is key.

"Good information hygiene" means having regular engagement with news, engagement with differing points of view, verifying that information and not amplifying or spreading misinformation. But only one in four people surveyed said they practiced "good information hygiene." 

"The fears that people have about job loss, about their health — all are related and intertwined within the pandemic and the infodemic," he said.

The "infodemic" is having a negative effect on the world's battle against the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Only one-third of respondents globally told us they were prepared to get vaccinated right away, another third within a year, and the other third said that they don't want anything to do with vaccination. That is a tragedy," Edelman said. 

He said businesses, which are now nearly as trusted as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), need to step up and bring Americans, as well as people around the world, together. 

"We are only going to heal the country if, in a way, business acts to bring the two political sides together," he said.

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