By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
March 17, 2008
The public also overwhelmingly wants access to information like police reports of crimes committed in their neighborhoods and the lists of people who are licensed in their state to carry concealed weapons, according to a survey of 1,012 adults commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for National Sunshine Week.
The poll, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, found that only 20 percent believe the federal government is very or somewhat "open and transparent" in its actions, down from 25 percent in a similar survey last year and 33 percent in 2006.
Most people in the poll said they believe the federal government operates in secrecy. There was much less concern about openness in state and local governments.
"In a democracy whose survival depends on openness, it's sobering to see that three-fourths of Americans now view their national government as somewhat or very secretive," said David Westphal, Washington editor for McClatchy Newspapers and co-chairman of ASNE's Freedom of Information Committee. "On the other hand, it's gratifying to see that almost 90 percent believe a candidate's position on open government is an important issue when they make their Election Day choices."
The survey found that 60 percent said congressional and presidential candidates' positions on open government are "very important" to them, while just more than one-fourth said the issue is "somewhat important." Only about 6 percent said openness in unimportant to them and a similar number were undecided.
"Once again, citizens correctly perceived that their state and local governments are more open than the federal government. I'm also impressed that they indicated adherence to open-government principles is an important factor to look at in selecting candidates," concluded Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. "It's not just the media that wants open government. The survey has consistently shown that 'ordinary' citizens want it, too."
More than three-quarters of the people in the poll said they think it is likely that the federal government has opened private mail and monitored personal telephone conversations without court permission.
More than one-quarter of the people thought it was likely that federal investigators had monitored them. Nearly two-thirds said it's likely that telephone conversations and private mail belonging to members of the news media have secretly been monitored.
The survey, generally, found that conservatives and self-described "strong Republicans" are much less likely to believe that government operates secretly or that it has monitored telephone calls and opened mail without warrants. Black and Hispanic people, however, were especially likely to doubt openness in the federal government.
People in the survey expressed overwhelming support for a broad access to government information. Eighty-two percent said they want access to the lists of visitors who meet with local, state and federal lawmakers, 71 percent want access to local crime reports by police and 66 percent want access to lists of people who've obtained licenses to carry concealed handguns.
The survey also asked whether people should have to identify themselves or offer a reason for wanting to see public records. Nearly 70 percent said people should be required to give identification or to explain why they want to see government records, a finding that troubled freedom-of-information advocates.
"I'm quite puzzled by the strong belief that people who want to see public records have to identify themselves or justify why they want them. I find it a troublesome notion," Dalglish said. "I can't think of why the public feels so strongly about this. They want Big Brother keeping an eye on who looks at public information?"
The survey was conducted by telephone from Feb. 10-28 under the supervision of Robert Owens, operations manager of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. The co-directors of the center are Cary Frith and Jerry Miller.
Guido H. Stempel III, distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University, also assisted the project.
The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Sunshine Week is a national
initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government
and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast
and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools
and others interested in the public's right to know.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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