The public says TV and movies do not accurately portray the federal government and civil servants
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The public says TV and movies do not accurately portray the federal government and civil servants

December 7, 2023 | Updated on December 6, 2023

Although the American public interacts with the federal government in numerous ways such as going through security checkpoints at airports and receiving veterans benefits, many people learn about how government works through television programs and movies. Entertainment can have a wide reach. A 2022 Partnership survey found that two-thirds of the country has seen an episode of the long-running TV show NCIS. More than 30% have seen shows that focus on government operations such as 24, Parks and Recreation or The West Wing—shows that ended more than eight years ago but are still available through streaming and other outlets. 

But what does the public think of the representations of government in pop culture and entertainment? 

By large margins, the public believes that TV and movies do not accurately portray the federal government and the people who work there. A recent online survey by the Partnership found that 59% of respondents said they do not believe TV and movies give an accurate portrayal of the government, and 52% said the same about civil servants. Less than one-third said that TV and movies portray the government and civil servants accurately.  

There are differences in opinion on this subject based on political affiliation. Self-identified Democrats are more likely to say that the federal government is portrayed accurately (39%) than independents (24%) and Republicans (21%). Almost as many Democrats agree civil servants are accurately portrayed as do not (41% and 43%). By contrast, Republicans and independents overwhelmingly say that civil servants are not accurately reflected.  

Understandably, TV and movie producers are going to tell fictional stories that are focused on dramatic elements and exciting subjects. But what does it say when such large portions of the country believe the federal government and its employees are not portrayed accurately? Whether intentionally or not, the media contributes to how the public thinks about history and current events. Most people may never meet anyone who has worked in the White House, but millions have spent time watching the fictional characters of the show The West Wing—for better or worse.  

These results come from an online survey of 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Partnership from Sept. 6-12, 2023, using an online panel provided by Pollfish and Prodege. While the survey is not a random, nationally representative sample of people’s views, we used sampling techniques to resemble the demographic makeup of the U.S. and approximate public opinion in the country. 

While our survey did not ask respondents to tell us what they see as inaccuracy in the portrayals of government, our other research has found that a large portion of the public is eager to hear more positive stories about the government from news media and journalists. In addition, Americans generally view civil servants positively. By a ratio of more than 2-to-1, the public says federal employees are “competent” and far more people agree civil servants are “doing public service” than disagree and say that they are “hard workers.”  

The role of all forms of news and media in understanding the government and its impact on public trust is an issue the Partnership will continue to examine in the coming months and years. With its wide reach and lasting images, the content of television and movies will play some role in influencing how the country thinks about its government.  

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