One month before the EU referendum vote, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University has released interim findings on the stance being taken by newspapers.
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 20 February, find that of the 928 articles focused on the referendum, 45% were in favour of leaving compared with only 27% in favour of staying in the EU. Of the remainder, 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: Daily Mail included the most pro-Leave articles followed by Daily Express, Daily Star, The Sun and Daily Telegraph. The newspapers including the most pro-Remain articles were, in order, Daily Mirror, The Guardian and Financial Times. The study says 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 presenting the other point of view; however, the proportion of these was smallest in Daily Express and Daily Mirror, says the study.
The preliminary findings show that on an average day in this period, there were 42 articles focused on the referendum across the nine newspapers with Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Times having the highest number of such articles, followed by Financial Times, Daily Express, The Guardian and The Sun. Daily Mirror and Daily Star had the fewest number of articles looking at this issue.
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, Daily Telegraph and The Times, all focused more on arguments around the economy and less on sovereignty.
As they made the case to leave, Daily Express, Daily Star and 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 was 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 2016. The study was conducted with PRIME Research, media insight specialists.