National poll finds broad support for access

Americans strongly support open government and the press’ ability to access public records, and that support seems to be increasing, according to a national poll completed March 4 by researchers at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communication.

Some eight in 10 Americans agree democracy requires government to operate openly, according to the telephone survey of 403 randomly selected adults from throughout the country, conducted Feb. 19 through March 4.

Two-thirds of survey respondents agreed that open records and meetings keep government officials honest. A majority of Americans said the press should have access to a dozen different types of public records, including traffic accident reports, government officials’ expense accounts and email, and property tax records.

The public’s support for open government appears to have increased during the past four years. Significantly more people support press access to police records, public utility records and traffic accident reports on this poll than in a similar WSU poll of Washington state residents in 2002.

“This is good news for those of us who believe open government is the foundation of true democracy,” said Susan Dente Ross, director of AccessNorthwest, the WSU research group that conducted the study.

When it comes to privacy and national security, the study found that Americans remain hesitant to give unrestrained support. About two-thirds of Americans said they did not believe the press should have access to driver’s license records or divorce court files. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans said they are concerned about their privacy being invaded and the amount of personal information about them on the Internet.

Also, people seem willing to allow some government secrecy if it might protect national security. About three-quarters of Americans said the president should keep some public records secret to help wage the war on terrorism.

“Clearly, it is very difficult for us to judge when the release of government information will truly endanger the nation or our soldiers,” Ross said. “The American public has always been more willing to endorse government secrecy during times of war. Today, in spite of revelations about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, about Enron and Ken Lay, the public clearly wants to defer to the government to decide a great deal of what we should see. This is a natural human tendency, perhaps, but it has serious implications for our access to fundamental information about our government when the current war on terrorism may last indefinitely, even forever.”

The study found that support for access to public records is relatively uniform among Americans. Liberals and conservatives, people who have worked for government or not and people from different education levels expressed the same level of support for openness in government. The people most supportive of open government tend to be older newspaper readers and politically active.

The AccessNorthwest study, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, was paid for in part by a $5,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Established in 1950, the Knight Foundation supports journalism education and the arts. The study was conducted by graduate research assistant David Cuillier, who will further analyze the results to examine other factors related toward attitudes toward open government.

“We have a lot more to learn about how people think about open government and public records,” Cuillier said. “This study puts us another step closer, particularly by looking at who supports access and who doesn’t, as well as providing affirmation that Americans still support open government.

“Ultimately, we would like to better know what factors affect attitudes toward access, particularly when it comes to fear of privacy invasion and terrorism.”

AccessNorthwest is a non-partisan Edward R. Murrow School of Communication work group dedicated to research, education and outreach that increase citizen access to and use of government information, particularly by disenfranchised populations, with the objective of enhancing civic engagement and building a more informed electorate for a stronger democracy.

The questions and results of the survey can be found online at www.wsu.edu/~accessnw/news/surveyresults.htm.

 

 

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