- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Prime-time TV has given a far more positive spin on the bedrock of American government — police, teachers, elected officials and civil servants — in the past two years, compared with the previous six years, according to a new study.
In a study of 161 episodes of programs during the 1999 and 2000 network-TV seasons, overwhelmingly negative portrayals of government workers turned positive over a short time period, according to the Partnership for Trust in Government, a four-year-old coalition that "works to improve and sustain" the public image of government.
"Weve seen a complete flip," Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said about the survey, released yesterday. "The glass has turned from half-empty to half-full."
The popular NBC show "The West Wing" contributed to the more positive portrayal of government employees. Inspired and advised by the Clinton White House, the show debuted in 1999 and stars Martin Sheen as heroic liberal President Josiah Bartlet.
The past two TV seasons have depicted the government working constructively in the public interest, whereas in the mid-1990s, shows such as Foxs "The X-Files" characterized the government as riddled with conspiracy.
The study, the sequel to an earlier assessment of network TV from 1992 to 1998, sampled 1,658 characters on the four major broadcast-television networks: ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
Earlier in the 1990s, three out of four shows portrayed politics as corrupt, cynical or unrepresentative, the survey said. But in the past two years, that dire picture has been completely reversed, as the newest political TV series now portray elected officials as being effective public servants in what organizers call the "West Wing ripple."
"NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and "Third Watch" were among the shows cited for portraying law enforcement positively, roughly doubling their past scores. Although the previous study showed 58 percent of shows dealing with the justice system "concluded that the system was failing citizens," dialogue and plot lines are currently much more supportive of the systems ability to mete out justice.
Once rated dead-last in TV portrayals, politicians rose to 12th place among most positively portrayed occupations in the most recent survey, ahead of business characters and teachers, a leap directly fueled by the presence of "The West Wing."
Teachers held the least positive image of all groups surveyed, a noticeable switch from favorable ratings chalked up earlier in the 1990s, when teachers were the third-highest-rated occupational group.
The negative image of teachers reflected the impact of Foxs "Boston Public," a series with numerous roles for teachers. The show features a rather unflattering portrayal of public-school teachers, and affected the results specifically through instances of racism, grading bias, and sexual indiscretion between teachers and students.
"Boston Public" has, however, revived "televisions longstanding device of using the schoolhouse as an ongoing form to explore complex social issues and conflict," the report said.
Civil servants, who were in 10th place in the earlier survey, rose to sixth place in the "favorability index" measured by the survey, boasting the most improved image of any occupational group other than medical doctors. Positive portrayals jumped 8 percent from the last study.
Of TVs public servants, the most popular remained judges and prosecuting attorneys, featured on shows such as "Judging Amy" and "JAG." In both studies, these two occupations were shown in a positive light on TV more than three times as often as a negative one.
Mr. Lichter attributed the difference in portrayals to less public skepticism.
"Americans have become aware of their own cynicism," he said. "I think people are seeing the effects of that corroding our system.
"TV is giving more depth to its characters," he said, "more than just white hats or black hats."
The study gave great weight to "The West Wing" as being an effective political drama that greatly boosted the credibility of the presidency and other elected officials. The success of elected officials in the study was credited to the "West Wing phenomenon," in which "a single series can shift the profile of a group that is poorly represented in the overall prime-time schedule."
Satirical cable shows like "Thats My Bush" and "The Daily Show" were not among the surveyed programs, owing to the absence of cable-programming evaluation in the earlier 1992-1998 study.
"Television is a powerful civic teacher," says Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government. "People are influenced by what they see on television. They do think its accurate."
Miss McGinnis council is a founding partner of the Partnership for Trust in Government, a project of the Ford Foundation. Other partners include the AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters, the National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza.
Miss McGinnis suggested TV shows could even encourage young people to consider government careers. She noted that a January poll found a mere 30 percent of the American public said they trust the government. In 1964, 76 percent of Americans said they trusted the government.
But, "were not advocating blind trust," she said. "I think skepticism is good."
Mr. Lichter, who has conducted previous surveys on media bias, said TV does not begin social trends, but rather reflects them as they develop, then "inseminates" them into the culture.
"Television speeds up the source of change," he said, "and shifts it into high gear."
As for "The West Wing," its liberal politics were "basically ignored" when rating its success in the study, Mr. Lichter said. What was important, he said, was not so much what politicians convictions were, but rather the intensity and compassion of their stances.
"The ideology doesnt come in, because the characters are seen as doing their job well," said Dan Amundson, research director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Television doesnt really change peoples minds that are made up."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide