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Discussion at Europe House: How did UK press cover the EU referendum?

Event about UK Press coverage on Brexit
Event about UK Press coverage on Brexit

In a historic referendum, the majority of British voters decided to leave the European Union. The 23rd of June also marked the end of an intense campaign involving politicians, media and the public. How was the campaign covered in the British media? Were there more pro-Leave voices in the newspapers or pro-Remain ones? Which topics grabbed the editors’ attention? The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and Prime Research carried out an extensive study into the subject and published a report, which was launched at Europe House in London earlier this autumn.

The findings

The initial findings delivered in a presentation by the leader researcher of the study, Dr David Levy, showed that press coverage of the referendum campaign was biased towards Brexit. After analisying 2,378 articles the report reveals that of the pieces focused on the referendum 41% were pro-Leave while 27% had a pro-Remain frame. This trend is further accentuated after factoring in the reach of the different outlets, with 48% of all articles showing a pro-Leave leaning and 22% s pro-Remain one.

Overall six out of nine newspapers covered by the research had taken a predominantly pro-Leave line. While the strongest Leave stance was represented by the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Sun (both of which backed Brexit) reached a much wider audience. In fact, the latter two titles had the widest reach amongst all analysed publications with an average reach per article of over one million people. On the Remain side, the Daily Mirror, The Guardian and the Financial Times were the titles with the clearest position of support for the membership, although the average reach per article never surpassed 600,000 readers.

The economy was by far the most widely covered topic within the referedum articles, monopolising 45% of all messages that used the arguments deployed on each side of the campaign. It was however more prominent among the pro-Remain broadsheets, as press in favour to the Brexit paid more attention to the questions of sovereignty and migration, which respectively dominated 29% and 20% of its coverage.

The debate

Following Mr Levy’s presentation of the report, a panel discussion chaired by Dr Sara Hagemann, Assistant Professor at European Institute, London School of Economics, took place. The panellists were asked to give their view of the role of the media in the campaign.

Mathew Elliott, Chief Executive of Vote Leave said that he felt the debate was balanced overall. “Of the total spokespersons cited, 14% were campaign representatives” he pointed out “During the course of the campaign you’d have the situation where you have a spokesperson for the IMF, or another expert making an intervention and the Leave side has to respond with campaign representatives”, he added.

Lucy Thomas, Deputy Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, pointed out that the campaign was more positive than the coverage suggested. “If you look at any number of speeches and press releases, huge amount of it was about ‘here are all the positives of remaining”, she said, adding, “I think it’s a more interesting story to report the negatives. It’s much more hard-hitting to say Remain campaign says this many jobs are going to be lost”

On other side, Jonathan Isaby, editor of BrexitCentral pointed out that “newspapers tend to reflect the readers’ views rather than trying to change the readers’ minds in order to take a different position. He stated that it was not surprising that most of newspapers had a Leave stance - this reflected the euroscepticism of the British society over last few decades.

Richard Corbett MEP emphasised the importance of the tone of the coverage. “What was telling about the tone of the coverage was, that it was more about personalities rather than facts - it wasn’t about factual analysis”, he said. He pointed out that downloads of his EU fact-checking app “sadly they went up even more in July”.

After the debates the audience had a chance to share thoughts about the matter and pose their questions to the panel. What is certain is that the question of the role the media played in the referendum will be subject to debate and research for many months to come.

Watch the event online on the European Parliament’s website
Download the full report here