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Study shows that majority of press coverage in EU referendum campaign was heavily skewed in favour of Brexit in first two months of campaign

20 May 2016

One month before the EU referendum vote, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has released interim findings from a study it is undertaking with PRIME Research, media insight specialists, into press coverage of the referendum campaign.

The findings, which cover two sample days of coverage a week during the first two months of the referendum campaign immediately after David Cameron's post-summit Cabinet meeting on February 20, find that of the 928 articles focused on the referendum 45% were in favour of leaving, with only 27% in favour of staying in the EU (19% of articles focused on the referendum were categorised as ‘mixed or undecided’ and 9% as adopting no position.)

The findings also reveal that newspapers have been more likely to quote Conservatives in the first two months of the campaign. Of the total number of spokespeople quoted in the articles 36% were UK politicians, of whom 69% were Conservatives and just 14% Labour. Positions vary greatly between newspapers. The Daily Mail included the most pro-leave articles followed by The Daily Express, The Daily Star, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, while the newspapers including the most pro-remain articles were, in order, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Financial Times.

The articles examined in The Times were relatively evenly balanced between the two 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 of these was smallest in The Daily Express and The Daily Mirror. 

The preliminary findings show that on an average day in this period there were 42 articles focused on the referendum across the 9 newspapers with The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times having the highest number of such articles, followed by The Financial Times, The Daily Express and The Guardian and The Sun, with The Daily Mirror and The Daily Star having the fewest. Researchers also tracked what arguments were made for either pro-leave or pro-remain news stories. After removing articles purely focused on personalities, the campaigns or Brexit in general,   the most cited arguments in the remaining 765 articles were, in descending order: the economy/business (33%), sovereignty (29%), migration (18%), regulations (14%) and terrorism/security (6%).

In terms of the arguments used by different publications, even though The Sun and The Daily Mirror had divergent positions they both relied heavily on arguments around sovereignty while the four broadsheet publications, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Times, all focused more on arguments around the economy and less on sovereignty. As they made the case to leave, The Daily Express, The Daily Star and The Daily Mail were all more focused on the issue of migration.

The study also examines how the arguments used by newspapers changed and developed over the first two months of the campaign. The share of messages focusing on economy were high throughout this period but increased sharply to 60% immediately after March 21, when the CBI warned about the economic consequences of Brexit. Arguments focused on terrorism and security issues, although relatively rare, increased their frequency after the Brussels attacks of March 22.

The full report bringing in research for the entire period from February to June will be published in September.