Media Coverage of the 2015 General Election (report 3)
This is the third of a series of reports by the Loughborough University Communication Research Centre on national news reporting of the 2015 General Election.
The results in this report are derived from detailed content analysis of election coverage produced on the weekdays (i.e. Monday to Friday inclusive) between 30th March and 22 April from the following news outlets:
Television: Channel 4 News (7pm), Channel 5 News (6.30pm), BBC1 News at 10, ITV1 News at 10, BBC2 Newsnight, Sky News 8-8.30pm
Press: The Guardian, Independent, Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Mirror, Sun, Star and Metro
We analysed all election news found in the entire duration of all television programmes. For the press, we included election news found on the front page, the first two pages of the domestic news section, the first two pages of any specialist election section and the page containing and facing the papers’ leader editorials.
The results are organised into four sections:
- Stopwatch balance
- Directional balance
- Top 20 politicians in coverage
- Top issues over the last week
- In TV coverage, the Conservatives still have a quotation time advantage over Labour but it has reduced over the last week.
- The Conservatives continue to appear more frequently and are quoted more extensively in the national press
- The SNP have regained more prominence in media coverage in this third sample period but this coverage is predominantly negative.
- Their overall coverage has become more negative over the last two weeks
- The Daily Express and Daily Star are the only newspapers to provide consistently positive treatment of UKIP
- Labour party coverage is cumulatively negative across the entire sample of newspapers, with levels of negativity increasing over more recent periods.
- Ed Miliband was the most frequently reported politician this week, but it is the increase in Nicola Sturgeon’s presence that is the most remarkable.
- Policy-focused coverage has reduced by 10%, as journalists focus on the complex politics and permutations associated with the prospect of another coalition government.
Section 1: Stopwatch balance (30 March – 22 April)
‘Stop watch balance’ refers to the relative prominence of political parties in news coverage. We have two measures of this: (1) how much direct quotation time/ space the parties receive in coverage and (2) how frequently party representatives appear in coverage (see Table 1.1).
Our results show:
- A ‘quotation gap’ is still evident in TV news coverage, favouring the Conservatives. But the difference between the two main parties has narrowed since our last report (down to 4.2% from 6.5% last week) (see figure 1.1).
- There is no equivalent ‘appearance gap’ between Labour and Conservatives in TV news reporting (see Table 1.1)
- There is a quotation and appearance gap evident in national press coverage, with the Conservative party gaining an advantage over Labour on both measures.
- Coverage of the SNP has increased since our last report, with the greatest gain in their frequency of appearance
- UKIP is sustaining its presence on the electoral news agenda in TV and press coverage.
Table 1.1: Appearance of parties in coverage
Note: Percentages=number of appearances of party/ total appearances of all parties
Section 2: Directional balance and the press
Stopwatch measures of this kind do not give us insight into the extent to which coverage of parties is positive or negative, that is, the ‘direction’ of coverage.
To measure this aspect, we noted the extent to which each item had positive or negative implications for any of the main political parties.
A brief explanation of this measure
In some cases, this was decided by the subject matter of the item. For example, most reports on allegations about Grant Shapp’s manipulation of Wikipedia entries would be coded as ‘mainly or solely negative’ for the Conservative party (unless the item constituted a comprehensive rebuttal of the claims).
Some articles contain material that has positive and/or negative implications for more than one political party. To cover these occasions, we separately measured positivity or negativity for each of the seven main parties in each item.
It is important to emphasise that this is not solely or even mainly a measure of overt support or criticism by a journalist of a party (although these instances would be included in the count). It is a broader measure of the extent to which newspapers report on issues/ comments/ developments that have positive or negative implications for parties. We only coded these instances when the implications for parties were overtly referred to in the piece.
Measuring media evaluations of this kind is not straightforward, as there is a risk that subjective political opinions might influence whether a news angle is seen as positive or negative. This is particularly the case with broadcast content, where overt editorialising is discouraged, and political implications are not always clearly stated. Two inter-coder reliability tests were conducted to check the robustness and consistency of these measures. The press-related data had by far the higher level of confidence, and for this reason, are the focus of this part of the report.
- If an item mainly or solely focused on positive matters for a party, it was given a value of +1.
- If it mainly/ solely focused on negative matters for a party, it was assigned a value of -1.
- Items where there was no clear evaluation, or contained positive and negative issues in broadly equal measure, were coded as zero.
- Items where no reference was made to the party were excluded from the calculation
- The results were collated for each sample period and an average score calculated. Positive and negative values indicate the overall direction and strength of coverage.
Figure 2.1 provides an overall indication of positivity/ negativity of coverage of the different parties across three sample periods. The findings show
- Only the Conservatives have sustained a positive overall ranking across all three sample periods, although this positivity has fallen back in the latest sample period.
- Labour has had a consistently negative press throughout the campaign so far. This negativity has increased sharply over the most recent period.
- SNP coverage has swung from credit to debit in the second and third sample periods. Negative coverage of the party in the second sample period exceeded levels of negativity for Labour for the same period.
- UKIP has consistently registered negative editorial scores for all of the sample periods.
These general frequencies obscure some important variations across different newspapers. Figures 2.1 – 2.6 compare the directional balance of party coverage across a range of newspapers. The findings show:
- Daily Mail and Sun coverage are consistently and considerably positive in their coverage of the Conservatives. They are similarly and equivalently negative in their reporting of Labour.
- The Daily Mirror offers a complete contrast. Consistently high averages for Labour and negative averages for the Conservative party.
- Coverage of the SNP in the Daily Mail, Sun, Express and Star only became negative from the second sample period. In the first sample period, the average scores were neutral or marginally positive.
- The emphasis of the Daily Mirror’s coverage of the SNP has varied between balanced and marginally positive.
- The Sun, Mirror and Mail have been all been consistently negative in their coverage of UKIP.
- The Daily Express and Daily Star, both owned by Richard Desmond who recently announced a donation of £1.3 million to UKIP, are the only newspapers that produce consistently positive average scores for their coverage of UKIP.
- The Liberal Democrats are attracting little evaluative coverage/ commentary of any kind.
Section 3: The ‘Top Twenty’ of media appearances (16 April- 22 April)
Once again, we monitored which politicians appeared most frequently in coverage this week and compared their prominence with last week.
|Rank||Campaign figure||% of||Chart position|
|1||Ed Miliband (Lab)||33||+1|
|2||David Cameron (Con)||28.8||-1|
|3||Nicola Sturgeon (SNP)||24.1||+4|
|4||Nigel Farage (UKIP)||16||+1|
|5||Nick Clegg (LibDem)||14.7||-2|
|6||John Major (Con)||6.6||New entry|
|7||Boris Johnson (Con)||5.6||+7|
|8||Ed Balls (Lab)||3.9||Non-mover|
|9||Alex Salmond (SNP)||3.5||New entry|
|10=||Natalie Bennett (Green)||3.3||-1|
|10=||Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)||3.3||Re-entry|
|12||Grant Shapps (Con)||2.9||New entry|
|13||Jeremy Hunt (Con)||2.7||Re-entry|
|14||Stewart Hosie (SNP)||2.1||New entry|
|15||George Osborne (Con)||2.1||-11|
|16||Andy Burnham (Lab)||1.9||Entrant|
|17||Jim Murphy (Lab)||1.7||-7|
|18||Suzanne Evans (UKIP)||1.2||-7|
|19=||Danny Alexander (LibDem)||1||Re-entry|
|19=||Vince Cable (LibDem)||1||New entry|
|19=||Kenneth Clarke (Con)||1||New entry|
|19=||Michael Fallon (Con)||1||-13|
Note: Percentages=appearance of politician/ total number of articles*100.
Ed Miliband emerged as the most prominent campaigner this week, overtaking David Cameron for the first time in this election. Miliband’s profile reflects his status as both a prospective premier and, particularly for his print media detractors, a threat (see section 2). The Independent recently reported proprietor Rupert Murdoch was apparently unhappy with the failure of his Sun newspaper’s attacks on the Labour leader. If this and other papers continue to focus on Miliband’s alleged shortcomings it is highly likely he will continue to be the most prominent politician in the remaining two weeks of the campaign.
Cameron and Miliband enjoy the highest media profiles by deed of the strong likelihood of one or other of them becoming Prime Minister after 7th May. So third placed Nicola Sturgeon is perhaps the real star of the campaign so far, even though she is not an actual candidate for a seat at Westminster in this election. This did of course not prevent her from partaking in the Leaders’ Debates and Ms Sturgeon has self-evidently used this exposure to raise her and her party’s profile. But not all of this attention has been welcome, as we have shown previously. According to a striking Daily Mail front-page the Scottish First Minister is now ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain’. Sturgeon has had significantly more exposure than either of the other most likely power brokers, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg who follow in fourth and fifth place respectively.
The SNP’s significance in this election is reflected by the debut of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and current party deputy leader Stewart Hosie in the campaign top twenty. This increased focus on the Nationalists’ putative power broking role has been further augmented by attacks on them and their potential influence over a minority Labour government by former Prime Minister John Major and Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Despite the prominence of Nicola Sturgeon, women are quite marginalised in this campaign. Take away the three leaders of the so-called ‘progressive alliance’ of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens and UKIP’s Suzanne Evans is the most prominent female politician. Evans has played a key role in explaining and defending her party’s policy but it is still surprising how she has become more prominent than leading women politicians such as Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, Home Secretary Theresa May and her Opposition shadow Yvette Cooper. May and Harman have featured in the top twenty but have since faded and Cooper is yet to enter the chart despite her seniority within her own party.
Section 4: Issue Balance
Table 4.1: Most prominent issues of the week
|Themes 16 April – 22 April||Themes 9 April – 15 April|
|1||Election Conduct/Citizen Engagement/Parties||49.8%||39.4%|
|26||Crime/Law and Order||.2%||.5%|
Coverage of the ‘horse race’ itself has increased this week, up over 10% to almost half of media coverage and more than half if we include constitutional issues, as we should as they are closely related to electoral process in this election. That the process of the election, so-called ‘metacoverage’, is the most covered issue is far from new either in the UK or internationally but it is strikingly dominant this week in comparison to previous weeks and indeed previous elections. Why? It is usually the most covered issue because coverage tends to beget coverage (opinion polls lead on to discussion of who is having a good/bad election, what can be done by them to improve the situation and so on). This week it is especially prominent because a hung parliament has become ‘priced into’ a good deal of media coverage. It is now taken for granted by many journalists that neither Labour nor the Conservatives will form a majority government either by themselves or in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and so there is considerable speculation about what will happen post-May 7th. Both Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are trying to break this opinion poll stalemate by emphasizing the dangers of coalition with parties of the right and left, whether ‘Blukip’ or the ‘Tartan terror’ respectively. The Conservative strategy now appears to focus on attempting to persuade English voters in England to vote Conservative to increase their chances of forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats and possibly the DUP whereas the Liberal Democrats are hoping to gain tactical support from both Labour and Conservative supporters so that they can be a moderating influence on either if the occasion arises. All this provides endless opportunity for analysis and comment.
The big losers this week are taxation, women’s issues, defence and housing. Taxation is down 6.3% to 3%; women’s issues are down from 3.2% to 1.3%; defence falls from 5.1% to 2.5% and housing drops dramatically, almost off the electoral radar, at 0.5% from 5.7%. All were prominent issues in manifesto launches last week but what is striking is that there has been very little follow through by either parties or media. One suspects that had the policies mentioned in the respective manifestos been better received by focus groups then they would still be featuring more highly in the party campaigns and thus in media coverage. In attempting to break the electoral logjam we may be witnessing a game of ‘spin-the-policy-wheel-of-fortune’ as parties seek to gain traction, with policies that fail to connect being quickly dropped.
Amongst the issue winners this week were ‘sleaze’, Europe and immigration. Sleaze is up to 3.2% from 2.5% as The Guardian led on Grant Shapps and the mysterious changes to his and other politicians’ Wikipedia pages by Contribsx to the advantage of Mr Shapps. The manipulation of Wikipedia for modest political advantage has a history as old as, well, Wikipedia itself. Famously Conservative Central Office changed the age of death of Titian after a spat at PMQs in 2009 between David Cameron and Gordon Brown to show that Cameron was right in casting doubt about the allegedly ailing faculties of the then PM.
In 2010 Gillian Duffy’s monstering of Gordon Brown and his failure to take off his mic led to ‘bigotgate’ and a rise of media attention on the issue of immigration especially in the mid-market press. In this election the easily avoidable deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern islands of Italy has resulted in a focus on Europe and immigration. It is not clear as yet who will make the most political capital out of these tragedies. Foreign policy issues, such as the parlous state of Libya post-UK intervention that are clearly related to the issue of immigration have failed to get a look in. In a globalizing world, it is remarkable how the reporting of the General Election is dominated by national issues.
This research is funded by a grant from the British Academy/ Leverhulme Trust
The Loughborough Communication Research Centre (LCRC), based at the Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, has substantial experience of conducting media content audits. It has worked closely with a range of funding bodies, charities and the public sector organisations including: the BBC Trust, Ofcom, The Guardian and the Electoral Commission.
Since 1992, it has conducted an analysis of news coverage of the British general election campaign.
The LCRC draws on the experience of its members who are leading international media and political analysts who have published widely in the fields of communication research and methodology. The LCRC has no links with any political parties or interest groups, nor has it conducted research or consultancy on behalf of organisations that could be categorised in these terms. See https://blog.lboro.ac.uk/general-election/.
Ensuring reliability between coders is an essential aspect of any project involving content analysis and especially in large scale projects such as this. For the results of any content analysis to be deemed reliable there needs to be a high level of agreement between two or more coders when coding the same news item. This research ensures such levels of reliability are achieved through a number of measures. 1, using post-doctoral researchers and doctoral students working in the LCRC whose research concerns the media; 2, providing rigorous coder training prior to the analysis; 3, conducting a close monitoring of coders during the campaign; and 4, conducting reliability tests and addressing any areas of weakness these expose.