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Government Workers Have Prime-Time Image Problem

Study: Analysis of network TV finds public officials the most negatively portrayed occupational group.

May 04, 1999|LEE MARGULIES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the exception of teachers and police officers, government workers are generally portrayed unfavorably on prime-time entertainment television series--a situation that has been getting worse in recent years, according to a new study being released today.

The analysis of 1,234 episodes of network TV series between 1955 and 1998 found that public officials had the worst image of any major occupational group during the 1990s, that public officials committed crimes more than twice as often as characters in other occupations, and that the depiction of legal and political institutions over the past two decades has changed from overwhelmingly positive to a largely negative view in which the system is corrupt and its employees appear to operate either out of self-interest or on behalf of special-interest groups.

"Prime-time entertainment today gives public service little notice and less respect," said S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which conducted the study. "Teachers and law enforcers are still positively portrayed, but rarely as government representatives. The core institutions of government--the political system and those who work within it--are treated badly."

The study was commissioned by the Partnership for Trust in Government, a project formed by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Ford Foundation to promote Americans' understanding of and involvement in government.

In a statement prepared for release with the report, Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, expressed concern "about the lack of balance in the way people who work in government are portrayed. In the world of 1990s prime-time television, the mayor is clueless or corrupt, the postal carrier is storing your mail in a locker and a secret government agency is plotting to kill off citizens with biological weapons."

The study's findings are all the more worrisome to McGinnis and her colleagues because a recent public opinion poll conducted for Partnership for Trust in Government found that 55% of the people questioned said they believe government officials and public servants are accurately portrayed in prime time.

"The helpful civil servant and the concerned public official are rare exceptions on television and in the minds of viewers," McGinnis said.

After releasing the study at a news conference in Washington today, her organization plans to convene a meeting this summer for people in the entertainment industry and others to discuss how government is portrayed in the media.

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