Researchers have long been concerned with the relationship between media coverage and support for political parties – especially parties with extreme views, whether on the left or on the right. The extensive body of research so far has shown how media coverage largely benefits parties on the right (though it’s unclear why the far left does not similarly benefit) and can increase concerns over related issues, such as immigration.
The role of the media in national political debate has recently been the focus of discussion following mainstream media appearances from an array of people from the far right of the political spectrum and the perceived normalisation of extreme views. It raises the question of whether this type of media coverage can, perhaps unwittingly, increase support for these same views. And at this particular time, there can be few more pressing questions than the role of journalism and the media in political life.
In a recent paper published in the British Journal of Political Science, my colleague Justin Murphy and I revealed research into the dynamics between the poll ratings of the eurosceptic party, UKIP, and media coverage of the party over the period 2004 to 2017.
We used an online database of newspaper articles and Ipsos-Mori’s polling data – and controlled for a range of factors, such as concern about immigration, election results and other key moments of UKIP’s coverage. We found that increased newspaper coverage for UKIP did indeed lead to increases in UKIP’s support – but, importantly, there was no evidence that popular support had increased media coverage. So what this means is that – at least in the case of UKIP and the print media – public opinion followed the media rather than vice versa.
From this statistical analysis, we also identified key periods where increased media coverage followed declining or stagnating levels of support – in other words, periods in which media interest in UKIP did not seem to be prompted by any objective party-related activity – an election campaign, for example. Translated into polling activity, we concluded that the maximum increase in UKIP’s poll ratings from this media coverage was a relatively humble 1%. A small but not insignificant amount.
What the data tells us …
The important message from this is about the dynamics of media coverage and support rather than the increase in poll ratings. Our paper, in line with research from other countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, shows that media coverage has a direct influence on support for parties such as UKIP, rather than support causing media coverage. This is problematic for Ofcom’s claim in 2015 that UKIP’s extensive media coverage in the run up to the election was justifiable based on the party’s poll ratings, precisely because poll ratings may, in part, reflect previous coverage by newspapers.
This should raise some ethical questions on the part the press plays in the public’s discussion of politics. It does not appear, at least in this study, that the coverage of UKIP is proportionate to other objective phenomena like elections – at least not at key moments of UKIP’s growth. It highlights the power of the media in shaping public opinion – and that the media interest in UKIP could well be a function of their own previous coverage rather than movements in public opinion or external factors.
… and what it doesn’t
Like all research, the findings need to be put in context. We did not look at media coverage outside of newspapers, such as TV, radio or social media, which became increasingly important over the period of our study. While newspaper coverage – print and online – is likely a good indicator of overall media coverage, we cannot say anything about the role of these other media.
Similarly, we did not look at content, just the amount of press coverage, and so cannot say whether the media was “biased” towards UKIP. On the contrary it’s quite likely that much of the coverage was negative (at least until the later years of the study). This may have played into UKIP’s hands as an anti-establishment party.
We also leave it as an open question of why media coverage leads to UKIP support. There are several plausible mechanisms, explored in other academic research. It may simply be a matter of “more is better” – where more publicity makes people more aware of the party and therefore more likely to vote for it. On the other hand, the periods in which UKIP’s support increases surround events such as European elections, the lifting of work restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers, and, of course, the EU referendum.
Since coverage of issues that a party “owns” can increase support, it is possible that coverage increases support as it links to UKIP’s issues, such as Europe and immigration, with cues on the party’s position.
Despite these limitations, both this study and the vast majority of work preceding it tell us one thing: media matters. This is true even in the UK, a political setting least likely to favour such a relationship – a two-party system that does not facilitate the success of new parties. But it is by no means the most important factor, at least in the case of UKIP. And we still do not really know precisely why media coverage fuels party support.
But most problematically, this research comes with no easy answers as to what we can do about it. And we probably won’t find the answers until we know the mechanism underlying the relationship. Despite not having a single sitting MP, UKIP routinely gets more press coverage than the Green party. One potential solution is to avoid chasing extreme positions and rather have coverage that reflects a party’s election results. Until then, articles about how parties increase their support perhaps unknowingly add just one more voter to the polling statistics – without the parties having to do any campaigning at all.