It’s Good To Be Honest!

Published: March 26, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Well… maybe with this guy, you could make the case for too much honesty.

But the reality is that in the last several years we have seen an unsettling number of ethics scandals.  And every time another indignity is reported, our level of trust and confidence in individuals and institutions declines.

In 2006, I wanted to know if these events were the result of a few rogue individuals and organizations, or are they part of a nationwide epidemic.  Has America become a culture of corruption?

Working with Zogby, International, a polling organization as well as the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, I created a survey asking individuals from around the country questions to measure the level of honesty and trust in America.  The poll ran in April, 2006 and resulted in responses from more than 8,000 adults.  The margin of error is plus or minus 1.1 percentage points.

The key question I was looking to answer was this:  Are the recent ethics scandals limited to one segment of society or are they a symptom that America, as a whole, is becoming less ethical?

The good news is that the survey indicates that Americans, as a whole, demonstrate honesty and integrity in their lives.  When tested with eight, real-life scenarios, the majority chose to do the right thing.  When faced with a choice between honoring the confidentiality of a pedophile and the safety of their children in their neighborhood, 60% would choose to violate the rules in order to protect their children – a difficult choice and an understandable concern.

When asked to grade the level of trustworthiness of select groups, Congress was given the lowest numbers at 76%, with the President and corporate leaders tied at 69% of “low” numbers.

“Americans have hit what may be the lowest level of trust of government institutions since the Depression,” the Cultural Studies group reported.  “The levels of mistrust go beyond a lack of trust in individual politicians to a deeper level: the perception that the institutions themselves are corrupt.”

Furthermore, when asked, “…which of the following individuals or groups do you believe demonstrate the best example of honesty and trust?” not a single respondent – out of more than 8,000 – cited “politicians or elected officials.”  The Zogby numbers revealed that American political leadership ranks at the same levels of trust as “entertainment and sports figures,” which also received no votes.

Regarding trust in corporations, three-quarters of Americans (74%) have less trust that corporations are doing the right thing by consumers, and 77% have less trust that corporations are doing the right thing by their employees.

“The news media has long been thought of as America’s ethical watchdog,” the Cultural Studies group said, “but even they are perceived as having serious trust issues.”

When it comes to confidence in the media that the reporting is accurate and fair, the survey revealed that only 20% of those surveyed gave Cable News (CNN, FOX, MSNBC) “high” marks, while 46% gave them “low” marks.  The Internet scored the lowest “high” rating at 19%, while Newspapers and Broadcast television (ABC, NBC, CBS) received 25% “high” marks.  The Cultural Studies group concluded that “Americans are generally much better at separating opinion and “spin” from fact than they are generally given credit for.”

However, the one thing that has always been lacking in most polls was a way for respondents to put forth their own thinking on an issue.  For this survey, I offered three, solution-oriented questions:

What two or three specific changes would have to take place in order to improve your trust incorporations… government… and honesty and trust in America?

The results of those write-ins will come in the next post.




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