On TV, 'civil servant' means 'bumbling loser'

tshoop@govexec.com

If you think the image of government employees on television shows just keeps getting worse, you're right, according to a new study.

After analyzing more than 1,200 episodes of prime-time series from the 1950s to the 1990s, researchers at the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that every major group of civilian public-sector employees is portrayed more negatively today than in the past.

"Television takes public officials and civil servants and turns them into politicians and bureaucrats who serve their own interests or special interests rather than the public interest," the study concluded. "Government institutions are shown in an even worse light than the individuals who staff them."

The results of the study were presented Tuesday by the Partnership for Trust in Government, a project of the Ford Foundation and the Council for Excellence in Government. The partnership also released the results of a survey showing that 55 percent of Americans believe that public servants are portrayed accurately on prime time entertainment television.

Even groups of public officials that tend to be portrayed positively on TV are less likely to play the part of heroes today, the study found. The ratio of positive to negative portrayals of police officers declined from 5 to 1 in previous decades to 2 to 1 in the 1990s. For teachers, the ratio declined from 4 to 1 to 2 to 1. Public officials have replaced business people as TV's least likeable occupational group.

The downturn in the government's image dates back to about 1975, the study concluded, and negative portrayals have dramatically increased in the 1990s. The researchers couldn't find a single show in the past decade that made the point that public officials serve the public interest.

"Once upon a time, we actually had TV characters in government who did good things," said S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The title character of the 1970s sitcom "Benson," he noted, started as a butler to a state governor, but worked his way up to become state budget director and eventually ran for governor himself.

Now the intrepid investigators of "The X-Files" investigate massive conspiracies involving multiple federal agencies, "Seinfeld" mocks postal workers and "The Simpsons" routinely portrays local officials as conniving and corrupt.

"TV doesn't have much to say about government, but most of what it has to say is bad," said Lichter.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.