Oxford newspaper study finds pro-Brexit bias

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An Oxford University study has found that 45% of national newspaper articles were pro-Brexit in the two months after 20 February, while 27% have been in favour of remaining in the EU. A further 19% were mixed and 9% took no position. Newspapers were also much more likely to quote Conservative politicians over Labour ones.

Unsurprising, the Daily Mail was found to be the biggest support of the Leave campaign, with the Daily Express taking second place; the Daily Star, The Sun and the Daily Telegraph were next in line.

The Daily Mirror included the most pro-Remain articles, followed by The Guardian and the Financial Times. The Times was “relatively evenly balanced … with a slight preponderance of pro-Leave articles”.

Analysts discarded articles on people, campaigns or Brexit and, based on the remaining 765 referendum stories, found that the most cited arguments were about business and the economy (amounting to 33%). Sovereignty was second at 29%, followed by migration (18%) and regulations (14%). Terrorism and security accounted for 6% of the arguments.

These findings varied by newspaper. The Daily Express, Daily Star and Daily Mail focused more than average on the issue of migration.

They also varied over time. After the CBI warned about Brexit on economic grounds, more arguments were made along economic lines. Likewise, terrorism and security became more important issues relating to the referendum after the Brussels attacks in March.

The researchers also found that UK politicians were quoted 36% of the time in articles on the referendum, but the mix was far from balanced. 69% of them were Conservative, and only 14% were from Labour.

The study was conducted by researchers at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. They took two-day samples from the largest nine national newspapers in the United Kingdom during the two months after David Cameron’s post-summit Cabinet meeting on 20 February. This meant working through 928 referendum-based articles.

The power of the media in choosing which side to back came to the fore last week when  The Sun’s former political editor Trevor Kavanagh said that Rupert Murdoch himself would determine the paper’s final stance. Reports suggest that he is at present undecided despite his well known anti-EU views. The referendum campaign itself has thus far seen a number of allegations of bias in newspaper reporting on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The study was carried out with PRIME Research, “media insight specialists”. The full report will be released in September.