National Poll: Americans' Skepticism About Their Government Is Increasing

September 02, 1997

ATHENS, Ohio -- Sixty-six percent of Americans believe people are more angry with the federal government than they used to be and only 25 percent believe the government is making their lives better, according to a recent national poll at Ohio University.

The nationwide survey of 1,009 adults, conducted by Guido Stempel, distinguished professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and Thomas Hargrove of the Scripps Howard News Service, found that Americans have become increasingly distrustful of the government in a variety of areas.

Part of the distrust and anger, Stempel said, may stem from the negative nature of stories produced by the nation's print and broadcast news media.

"The people who are angry with the government receive news coverage from the media," Stempel said. "On the one hand, we have extremist groups reacting against the government, but we also have the elected officials doing this. It's a general flow of negativism that is in the news. People who aren't angry with the government aren't going to get much news coverage."

Findings from the poll suggest Americans have grown increasingly skeptical of their government since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Fifty-one percent of the public believes the government was involved in Kennedy's assassination.

When asked about the Vietnam War, 60 percent said it was likely military leaders withheld information about the dangers of the chemical Agent Orange.

"Part of it is the politics of the time," Stempel said. "We've had an attack on big government, and both political parties have joined in. Certainly Vietnam and Watergate have contributed to the feelings of distrust."

When asked about a more recent event, 80 percent of those polled said they believed it is likely that military leaders are withholding information about American troops' exposure to nerve gas or germ warfare during the Persian Gulf War.

The poll found that people of all races, ages, education and income levels, and political orientation believe in government conspiracy theories, but the younger, less affluent respondents were more likely to believe in such theories.

Part of the increasing distrust and unhappiness with the government may be due to an increase in news media outlets over the last 30 years, Stempel said.

"In all the grocery store tabloids, television news magazines and radio talk shows there's an awful lot of stuff that says the government isn't getting the job done," Stempel said. "Most people can tell the difference between the nightly news and some of these tabloid television shows, but not everybody."

Participants in the survey, conducted in June, represented all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The households of those called were selected at random by computer. The survey has a 4 percent margin of error.

- 30 -

Contact: Guido Stempel, 614-593-1609;

Written by Dwight Woodward, 614-593-1886;

Ohio University

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