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How to reverse declining trust in institutions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking about Americans' declining faith in critical institutions, with a particular focus on elections and the news media. So now we're going to turn to two people who are working to change that. Tony Marcano is the managing editor of Southern California Public Radio, which includes NPR member station KPCC in Los Angeles and LAist. He recently wrote a piece outlining how the news outlet plans to change the way it covers politics as a way to, quote, "reenergize demoralized readers and listeners who've given up on civic involvement amid all the vein-popping vitriol," end quote. He's also a former NPR editor, and he's with us now from Pasadena, Calif. Tony Marcano, welcome back - or welcome or welcome back, I should say. Thank you for joining us.

TONY MARCANO: Nice to hear from you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Eric Liu. He is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. That's a group focused on bringing people together for civic engagement in order to create more responsible citizens. And he's with us now from his home office in Seattle. Eric Liu, welcome back to you as well.

ERIC LIU: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, Eric, I'm going to start with you because one of the things you do at Citizen University is get people to re-engage with civic life. We just heard from two researchers from Pew that people aren't as trusting in - as - in institutions. So before we jump into solutions, I just wanted to ask you to tell us briefly what a strong civic culture means exactly? And why is trust important?

LIU: Well, it's a great question. And I think a strong civic culture is one where we are fluent in power, which means we understand how things work and how things get decided. And we can begin to practice actually being part of the answer to the question, who decides?

But that fluency in power then is coupled with character, with a set of values and ethics that it's I'm going to participate not just to get mine, not to exclude other people, but to figure out how can we make a community that starts working for everybody? And this idea that power plus character equals citizenship, it's a way for us to reorient what are we trying to do here right now because if you look around at our civic culture, there are a lot of examples of people who are exercising power but utterly without any kind of grounding in an ethos or an ethic that is about more than just oneself.

But you used a word that's super-central to this whole conversation, and that is trust. I think we don't trust our institutions. And increasingly, we don't trust each other. And that is itself a contagious dynamic. And I think one of the most important antidotes to that dynamic is this - we ourselves have to be more worthy of trust. But it's not just about us as catalytic people or organizations. It's about each of us taking a measure more of responsibility.

MARTIN: Tony Marcano, you recently wrote a piece for Nieman Lab, which is a site that focuses on best practices in journalism, with a particular focus on, you know, operating in the digital age. You wrote about your news outlet's decision to change how it covers local politics. In it, you say that we are more concerned about who's mostly silent. "That's not just the voters who've lost faith in or become exhausted by what passes for politics these days, but also who's quietly funding messaging that's designed to distract the public from nefarious power grabs." I'm quoting you there.

So first of all, just as briefly as you can, how did you arrive at that specific kind of decision or analysis? And then I'm going to ask you to put some meat on those bones. Like, what is this reporting going to look like? And how is it different from what we've been seeing and hearing?

MARCANO: We have been talking at KPCC and LAist for a long time about how do we refocus the lens of our coverage to make it more relevant to voters and more directly impactful on their lives? Most people don't look for issues coverage. They want to know how they can interact with the government and how it can be relevant to their day-to-day living. So we made a very conscious decision that we were going to tilt the focus over to more of a civics gaze, more of a civics spin and do it through the lens of our audience - from our listeners and our readers.

We can easily, like everybody else, do coverage that is institutional-based that comes out of the halls of power. And we will continue to do that. And we're not saying that we're going to change over our coverage so that we ignore those institutions. But we're not going to focus our coverage from their perspective. We're going to focus it from the perspective of voters.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask briefly if, just in the course of your work and your lives, do you think that most people actually want things to be different? Because the reality of it is it has become clear that some people like the division. Some people go into politics not to bring people together, but to dominate. Tony, do you think that most people want what you think they want, which is just to be included and to be heard?

MARCANO: Well, that's part of the engagement strategy, is that we need to listen to what people are interested in hearing about. We are talking about a very diverse audience of people who have different levels of engagement and different levels of interest in the political process. We need to tap into what it is that people want to know about their government. You know, one of the things we rarely see in media is politicians who actually are making things work. We focus on the ones who are obstructionist and are shouting and are the loudest. But who's effective? Who's actually serving their constituencies? We want to know about that.

MARTIN: Eric, final thought?

LIU: Well, you know, I think your question is profound. I think all people, wherever they're coming from, want respect and dignity. They want to feel like they matter. They don't want to feel disrespected by society, elites, institutions, their neighbors and others. So I think all people want that.

I think some people believe that the pursuit of dignity and respect is a zero-sum game, that if someone's getting or claiming more right to dignity and respect, that must be taking away my own. And so I need to shut that down. I need to dominate them, that this is a game of domination and defeat.

And I think the charge that all of us have as citizens is that it is possible for us - in fact, it is absolutely necessary for us to recognize that on an ethical level, we're all better off when we're all better off, that actually, if we can build a community where people hear each other, see each other and respect each other - yes, we're still going to have deep power imbalances. Yes, we're still going to have some people who are going to try to exploit our divisions. But we have to recommit to the idea that we can build a positive-sum outcome where the achievement of equality for people who have been long cut out does not diminish the dignity of those who have had relative privilege and power. And I think we're living that question right now. Can we do it? You know, that is itself a matter of faith. Democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works.

MARTIN: That was Eric Liu. He is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. He's also the author of a number of books, including "You're More Powerful Than You Think." We also heard from Tony Marcano. He is the managing editor of Southern California Public Radio, which includes KPCC in Los Angeles and LAist. Tony Marcano, Eric Liu, thank you both so much for joining us.

LIU: It's been great to be with you. Thanks, Michel.

MARCANO: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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