Vox pops made up over one-third of all election news sources on the UK’s nightly television bulletins in the first week of the 2017 election campaign, our study has found. While politicians made up the majority of appearances, 36.4% of sources were members of the public expressing their views about the election.
That matters because research has shown that citizens tend to be represented apolitically in television news. Members of the public are used to respond to political elites rather than contribute to policy debates. Our study of election coverage so far broadly reinforces this picture, but we also found citizens articulating clear party political preferences without supporting evidence.
Vox pops – meaning voice of the people – are a longstanding television news convention designed to give a flavour of public opinion. They are, in this sense, illustrative. They are not a scientific tool to measure public opinion. As the BBC guidelines state:
Vox pops should be used as “a spread of opinions, reflecting, in a balanced way, the different strands of argument, OR, where appropriate, present an accurate and proportionate reflection of those whose opinions we have sought”.
However, in campaign coverage so far, people’s party political perspectives have often been conveyed in vox pops without necessarily balancing a range of voters’ views.
The character of Jeremy Corbyn has often been the focus of attention, along with Labour’s election prospects and, to a lesser extent, its policy positions. As one Channel 4 vox pops colourfully put it, “I still believe in Labour [but not] plonker Corybn”.
Of course, opinion polls may support many of the views articulated in vox pops. But we found very few polls referenced so far in campaign coverage. Those that were almost entirely centred on the horse race between parties rather than people’s policy preferences.
Since vox pops may generally reflect the dominant views expressed in opinion polls, one could argue they are being well used to illustrate the public’s views about the parties and their leaders. But without referencing systematic public opinion data, there is a danger that vox pops could be reinforcing conventional wisdoms about “the public mood”. In doing so, the complexity behind people’s political opinions may become distorted, as is often the case when vox pops focus on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.
Yes, Corbyn’s personal rating are one of the worst for party leaders in polling history. The Conservatives’ strategy to focus on Theresa May’s “strong and stable leadership” and Labour’s reluctance to push for a live TV leaders’ debate signal Corbyn’s electoral weakness.
But when the public are polled about Labour’s policy positions, conventional wisdom about Corbyn being out of touch with voters is challenged. According to a ComRes poll, for example, a clear majority of public supports raising the minimum wage and increasing the top rate of tax to 50p from 45p – two key Labour pledges. Another ComRes poll also found a majority favoured renationalising the railways and the Royal Mail.
In other words, when citizens consider Labour’s policies they are often more supportive, whereas when the focus is about leadership and personality their rating plunge.
Where are the polls?
In our increasingly presidential political system, the emphasis on party leaders may appear a necessary part of election reporting. But since the UK has a parliamentary system – with parties elected and governments formed accordingly – it makes more sense for broadcasters to put the parties’ policy agendas ahead of reporting the character of leaders. It’s how parties govern and their policy agenda that will ultimately affect people’s lives.
For all their faults, opinion polls remain the most accurate way of assessing people’s understanding of the world. Since misleading polls distorted the 2015 UK general campaign, it may be unpopular to argue that election coverage should be informed more – not less – by polling data. But this does not mean polls have to promote a horse race narrative about which party is ahead. Polls could instead be used more imaginatively to focus the media agenda on the issues and policies that most concern voters.
The Cardiff University study examined bulletins on Channel 5 at 5pm, Channel 4 at 7pm and at 10pm on BBC, ITV and Sky News between April 30 to 8 May (excluding 4 May). Research by Marina Morani, Harriet Lloyd, Rob Callaghan, Lucy Bennett and Chris Healy.