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The Harvard International Journal of Press Politics 5.2 (2000) 96-103

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Government Goes Down the Tube:
Images of Government in TV Entertainment, 1955-1998

S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter, and Daniel Amundson


Government is the Rodney Dangerfield of America's social institutions--it doesn't get much respect. According to a survey commissioned in mid-1999 by the Council for Excellence in Government, just 29 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time. An even smaller number, 19 percent, expressed high confidence in Congress, and only about two in five believe the government is effective in solving problems. 1

If these attitudes come as no surprise, nor should the inference that they are partly a function of media-generated perceptions. Numerous studies have demonstrated the increasing negativity of news about national politics, as well as the relationship between media images and public attitudes (Lichter and Noyes 1996; Mann and Ornstein 1994; Miller et al. 1986; Page et al. 1987; Patterson 1993; Smoller 1986). At the same time, increased attention has been directed toward the role of popular entertainment in shaping audience attitudes and behavior, in debates ranging from television violence to the representation of minorities in prime time (American Psychological Association 1992; Bok 1998; Jhally and Lewis 1992).

Rising public dissatisfaction with government prompted us to consider the role that television entertainment might play in forming these attitudes. To our knowledge, no scholarly study has systematically examined the changing portrayal of government employees and institutions on prime time since television became a mass medium in the 1950s. We set out to do so as a prerequisite to any study of the medium's effects in this sphere.

Sample and Methods

We analyzed the portrayals of all characters identified as civilian-sector employees, as well as themes involving government practices and performance, in current and past prime-time series. 2 We conducted a content analysis of this material as part of a larger ongoing study of how television entertainment portrays American society. Coders identified personal traits and plot functions of every character with a speaking part and an identifiable occupation. These procedures are described in greater detail in previous publications (Lichter et al. 1994, 1997). [End Page 96]

This report profiles two major categories of public-sector workers: elected officials, including characters who either hold or seek public office, and a diverse category of civil servants, including mail carriers, clerks, and administrators. (We classified the occupation of each character according to U.S. Census Bureau codes.) Altogether, we examined 9,588 characters in 1,234 programs, of whom 561 (6 percent) were either public officials or civil servants at the local, state, or federal level. The historical sample contained 4,725 characters, of whom 247 were government employees; the contemporary sample consisted of 4,763 characters, including 314 government employees. 3 We also made comparisons with several private-sector occupations. In addition, we identified recurring themes related to the practice or performance of government, such as charges of government corruption and the question of whether government decisions are guided by the public interest or by special-interest groups.

Public Officials

Historical Analysis

Television has always presented a jaundiced view of government. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, public officials had the most negative prime-time profile of any occupational category except for business. Fifty-one percent played negative roles, compared to 40 percent whose roles were positive. The remaining 9 percent were neutral. Table 1 compares this profile with the portrayal of law enforcement officials, who have always been television's most populous and popular group; civil servants, whose portrayal we consider below; and the residual group of other occupations. The proportion of public officials who were portrayed negatively was roughly double that for all characters in census-coded occupations. Similarly, 11 percent committed crimes, versus 7 percent among all private-sector characters.

Throughout these three decades, television's politicians were typically wheeler-dealers or corrupt evildoers, with...


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pp. 96-103
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2000
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