Sunshine Week Poll: Most Americans Believe Gov’t Is Too Secretive — And Spies On The Press

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By: E&P Staff

By large margins, Americans believe the federal government has become secretive — and that its agents are probably spying on journalists.

A survey released Sunday by the organizers of Sunshine Week, March 16-22 found that 74% of the 1,000-plus American adults polled in February view the federal government as very or somewhat secretive. That’s an increase from a Sunshine Week survey two years ago that found 62% felt that way.

Three-quarters of American adults view the federal government as secretive, and nearly nine in 10 say it’s important to know presidential and congressional candidates’ positions on open government when deciding who to vote for, according to a Sunshine Week survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

The survey shows a significant increase over the past three years in the percentage of Americans who believe the federal government is very or somewhat secretive, from 62 percent of those surveyed in 2006 to 74 percent in 2008.

Americans clearly see dark implications in government secrecy. A surprisingly high 26% of survey respondents believed it was very or somewhat likely that the federal government had opened their personal mail or monitored their telephone conversations.

And while nearly half don’t feel they’ve been personally spied upon, fully 38% of Americans said it was very likely that the “federal government has opened mail or monitored telephone conversations involving members of the news media. Another 26% thought it was somewhat likely federal authorities had snooped on the press. Just 12% found that notion very unlikely.

“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 the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) Freedom of Information Committee. ASNE is the principal organizer of Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to underscore the importance to all American citizens of open government and freedom of information.

Westphal said he was cheered by another survey result that found 87% of Americans feel knowing a presidential candidate’s position on open government issues was important in determining who they would vote for.

During this election year, Sunshine Week launched the 2008 Sunshine Campaign to encourage or pressure candidates for all levels of office — from village council to the presidency — discuss their positions on open government and FOI issues.

The survey found wide public support for access to public information — even on issues that might be thought to be politically controversial. For isntance, 66% want public access to permits for concealed handguns. By a margin of 82% they want to know who public officials meet with during the day. And 71% want access to police reports about specific crimes in their neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the public is mostly willing to cut the keepers of public records some slack. About 50% think it’s okay for officials to ask people seeking records to identify themselves or explain the reason they want the public information.

That may be because they believe the government they interact with most often is already pretty open.

Survey repondents believe their local government is very open (16%) or somewhat open (40%). Similarly, about half of Americans see their state government as being very open (10%) or somewhat open (40%).

By contrast, just 4% of the surveyed Americans believe the federal government is very open — and 44% believe it is very secretive.

The telephone survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, was conducted under the supervision of Robert Owens, operations manager of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.

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