The press and the Referendum campaign


Dr David Levy

Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), University of Oxford.



Dr Billur Aslan

Research Assistant at RISJ and Royal Holloway, University of London.



Diego Bironzo 

Account Director at PRIME Research UK.



EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 3

Section 3: News

Our initial findings from research of press coverage in the first three months of the referendum campaign shows that the majority was heavily skewed in favour of Brexit. Here we provide some further detail on those findings together with some preliminary thoughts on their wider significance.

based on our initial findings of the first three months of press coverage, the majority of the press was heavily skewed in favour of Brexit. It also seems possible that this may have had some influence on the wider media coverage

Key findings about the coverage

Our research is based on a study undertaken with communications research consultancy PRIME Research into press coverage of the referendum campaign. The findings presented here come from analysis of two sample days per week (Tuesday & Saturday) of press coverage in the London Editions of 9 National newspapers during the first three months of the referendum campaign, from David Cameron’s post-summit Cabinet meeting on February 20 to 31st May. A full report for the whole period up to referendum day will be published in September.

Of the 1558 articles focused on the referendum (an average of 52 per day studied across the 9 newspapers), 41% were in favour of leaving, with only 27% in favour of staying in the EU. (23% were categorised as ‘mixed or undecided’ and 9% as adopting no position.)

Of the total number of spokespeople quoted in the articles, 35% were UK politicians, of whom 70% were Conservatives and just 13% Labour, with UKIP spokespeople quoted in 8% of articles.

The Daily Express had the highest share of pro-leave articles (75% of all its articles about the referendum, compared to only 5% of pro-remain ones) followed by The Daily Mail (61% vs. 14%). A majority of the articles published in The Sun, The Daily Star and The Telegraph were also pro-leave, while the newspapers with the highest share of pro-remain articles were, in order, The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, and the FT. The Times’ coverage was relatively evenly balanced between positions, with a slight preponderance of pro-leave articles. All newspapers, whatever their main position, included some articles from the other point of view, but the proportion was smallest in The Daily Express, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror.
In terms of issues, the economy featured most heavily in the FT and The Times, with migration, sovereignty and security jointly taking on a dominant position in the largely pro-leave coverage of the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Daily Mail.

A campaign that operated at two levels

We have still to analyse the tone of the coverage in detail but believe this may have been a factor in the campaign as the two sides increasingly operated in very different registers. The Remain camp’s focuses on economic risks and expert endorsement of these, appears to have compounded the sense that they represented an elite. It contrasted with the more emotive pull of the Leave campaign’s approach, their hostility to experts and elites, and their very effective slogan of retaking control of the country, which neatly brought together concerns about sovereignty and migration. In that sense the Leave campaign’s messages offered a better balance of hope as well as fear and worked better in the popular press (In arguments about the post-referendum future only 12% were coded as positive for Remain compared to 40% positive for Leave).

Press coverage resonated beyond its readers

The rise of online news and the continuing decline of newspaper circulation has not ended the relevance of the press to political debate. Recent Reuters Institute research shows that two thirds of people use BBC TV news each week compared to 14% who read the Sun in print and 17% who use the Mail online. But as John Gapper wrote recently in the FT, Fleet Street may be “smaller, weaker and less profitable than before, but it still bites”.

The long recognised agenda setting role of the press for the broadcast media, may have been particularly important in this campaign. All broadcasters are bound by a requirement to offer due impartiality. Given the way the referendum debate cut across traditional party lines, broadcasters may have relied more than usual on the press in deciding how best to balance their campaign coverage.

As Dominic Wring and colleagues found, the influence of pro Brexit coverage increased once circulation is taken into account since over 80% of consumers who buy a daily newspaper read a title favouring British withdrawal from the EU.

Age mattered too in terms of readership and voting behaviour. Press readership skews heavily to the older age groups; recent research on UK news consumption suggests that while 29.3% of 15-24s are print newspaper readers, this compares to 67.9% of over-65s. The BBC reported a survey by Lord Ashcroft of over 12,000 voters after they had cast their ballot suggesting that older voters were more likely to have voted Leave and in addition that turnout among older people also appears to have been higher than average.

In conclusion, based on our initial findings of the first three months of press coverage, the majority of the press was heavily skewed in favour of Brexit. It also seems possible that this may have had some influence on the wider media coverage. However, understanding whether and how that might have impacted on the result is beyond the scope of this research.