Study finds strong Brexit bias in newspapers before the Referendum

28th Oct 2016

Ala Abbas

A study by the Reuters Institute has found evidence of substantial bias in the press coverage leading up to the EU Referendum vote. The study, which was launched last month, looked into nine national newspapers over the four months leading up to the Referendum.

The research involved detailed analysis of 3,403 articles discussing the Referendum and found that 48% of all Referendum focused articles during the period of the study were pro-Leave, with just 22% pro-Remain.

According to the study, it’s the association of the EU with immigration after 2010 that has made the EU a more salient issue for most voters. Immigration was the biggest issue for pro-Leave voters, as discovered by the British Election Study carried out between April and May this year, and was the second biggest issue for undecided voters (the economy being the first).


Across the nine national newspapers that were studied by the Reuters Institute, the bulk of the articles that focused on the referendum was concentrated in right wing newspapers and newspapers that have traditionally taken a Euro-sceptic stance. For instance, The Daily Mail has run editorial campaigns against the EU for many years. According to Mike Berry, a lecturer in journalism at Cardiff University, “before the campaign even began large parts of the public had been primed by the media to be Euro-sceptic”.

The Euro-sceptic press has been so critical of Brussels for so long that in the 1990s the European Commission set up a website just to debunk myths propagated by Euro-sceptic newspapers.

The Reuters study found that the volume of EU Referendum focused articles was greatest in two right-wing newspapers. The Daily Mail published 403 articles while the Daily Telegraph included 360 of them, followed by The Times (336), Financial Times (318), Daily Express (275), and the Guardian (271).

The importance of a newspaper’s overall stance was noted in the study: “The UK press is strongly partisan but whether people choose the newspapers they agree with or newspapers affect their electoral choices is hard to establish. Newspapers do however appear to have influence in framing issues, and establishing the agenda that is discussed.”

The study’s concentration on the printed press was partly dictated by the role of the press in helping set the agenda for other media and partly because “newspapers still account for the largest share of investment in original journalism.”

The Referendum was highly politicised, according to the Reuters Institute, with around half the spokespeople cited in the press coming from political parties or the two campaigns. The spokespeople from both camps were also very disproportionately represented. Pro-Leave campaigners were cited in 74% of the articles studied, with pro-Remain campaigners cited in just 26%.

Very little space was accorded to experts and academics in the debate. The study found that the non-politicians who were cited were “generally those with an agenda who made themselves very readily available.” Professor Patrick Minford, strongly associated with the Leave campaign, was one of the few academics who was quoted in the press coverage. He was cited so much that his quotes accounted for a fifth of all quotes on the sample days of the study.

The effect of quoting campaigners over experts turned the campaign into a competition that focused on emotions rather than political and economic issues. According to the study, “political campaigns operate at multiple levels, in this case an issue-based level, an emotional one, and a game based level. In the Referendum the press seems to have operated better at the second and third than on the first.”

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