The view from across the pond: Brexit on American media

When the majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union on 23rd June 2016, American media immediately took notice. TV networks, national newspapers, and their web portals quickly filled with live reports and commentary as the EU referendum results started to trickle in and a political and economic crisis began to unfold in Britain. In contrast with British media coverage, which was split between pro-leave and pro-remain outlets, U.S. media appeared to offer a unanimously negative interpretation of the results. This scramble to cover “Brexit” in the aftermath of the referendum stood in stark contrast with the approach that American news media had taken to this issue up to polling day. In the months leading to the vote, U.S.-based specialist publications such as the Wall Street Journal offered some dire predictions. Yet, Britain’s EU referendum gained little traction in the top American media outlets that traditionally influence the broader national news agenda, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In contrast with British media coverage, which was split between pro-leave and pro-remain outlets, U.S. media appeared to offer a unanimously negative interpretation of the results.

The EU referendum was clearly of strategic importance to the U.S. government and president Obama made his preference for the UK to remain in the EU clear when he argued that “The UK is at its best when it’s helping to lead a strong European Union” during a trip to London in April 2016. Yet, it was particularly challenging for American media to report on this issue as it involved communicating a complex and technical foreign affairs topic to an audience that realistically had little knowledge of the EU and whose interest in international politics is generally low. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that “Brexit” also competed for attention with the bombastic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, which focused primarily on domestic issues. Looking at Google Trends data, which measure the popularity of a given topic on Google, it is clear that American users began to show some interest in the UK EU referendum only in the very final days before the vote. Although in part this may reflect the lack of news coverage about “Brexit,” it more broadly provides an indication that this issue lacked salience for the American public, which did not appear interested in finding out more about it.

Under these circumstances, American media were pressed to find ways to frame the referendum that would increase its relevance for American audiences. One potential angle would have been to draw a parallel between some of the anti-globalization and anti-immigration sentiments that animated the referendum campaign in the UK and similar positions that underpinned the campaign of 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In fact, Trump himself pointed out these commonalities during a strategically timed trip to Scotland on the day that followed Britain’s EU referendum. Yet, although some U.S. news outlets highlighted this angle in their commentary on the results, coverage that preceded the UK vote did not connect these two issues.

Instead, American media focused on an issue that has little to do with U.S. politics in their scant coverage of the EU referendum in the weeks prior to the vote. That is, the possibility that the UK itself may disintegrate following a vote for “Brexit.” Both the Washington Post and the New York Times framed some of their most prominent pieces on the EU referendum by tying this event to the possibility of follow-up referenda on Scottish independence and Irish unification in case that English people voted to withdraw from the EU, but voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not.

Surprising as it may seem, the decision to frame the EU referendum in this way suggests that applying a domestic lens – in this case the effects of Britain’s exit from the EU on the U.S. economy or a parallel with the 2016 presidential election campaign – may not necessarily be the preferred option for American media to report on complex international news. Instead, in order to augment the salience of a foreign event for domestic audiences, it can be useful to link these issues to somewhat similar events that were mediated previously and can now be used as a template to explain new ones (Kitzinger, 2000), such as in this case the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In the wake of the EU referendum result, the predictions that some U.S. media made about a deep constitutional crisis for the UK seem prescient. “Brexit” is now firmly on the agenda of American news outlets. Yet, finding templates to complement the coverage and make sense of the events that lie ahead in this process could be challenging considering that the UK and the EU are about to venture into unchartered and to a certain extent unpredictable territory.