Chelsea Oware reflects on the research undertaken during her university placement at the ERS.
General elections are prime fodder for news outlets, who tend to focus on the ‘horse race’ between the two main parties, rarely pay much attention to smaller parties, and frequently report on the ‘drama’ of the election.
One aspect of election campaigns which seems to receive a lot of media attention are the electoral processes themselves – the non-policy aspects of campaigning that relate to issues such as tactical voting, electoral pacts, marginal/safe seats, voter registration, and party strategies (e.g. targeting voters online). Informing the public about these issues is important, especially given our one-person-takes-all First Past the Post electoral system, which makes considerations about tactical voting and electoral pacts highly salient.
But they take a lot of attention away from the substantive policy issues of a campaign. If voters did not have to vote tactically in order to keep out the party they dislike the most, and if parties did not have to enter into electoral pacts and/or concentrate campaign efforts on marginal seats, we might hear less about the ‘two-horse race’ and tactical voting, and more about the policies of all parties.
As part of my placement, I decided to investigate what the news was focusing on – whether electoral processes, policies or other aspects of campaigning – and whether there was a shift during the course of the campaign. I analysed 179 news headlines covering the period 7 November-10 December, coding the main topic for each headline and any relevant sub-topics (e.g. ‘tactical voting’ as part of the ‘electoral process’ sub-category).*
As my analysis shows, almost half of all media coverage (44.4%) in the first week (6-12 November) related to electoral processes – information about policies did not feature at all in the sample, though to be expected given that parties were yet to launch their manifestos. Though it decreased over time, coverage of electoral processes was still significant in the following weeks. In week two, a quarter of news pieces looked at this topic, which included tactical voting, marginal/safe seats, voter registration and TV debates. Even in the last week analysed, 12 news headlines (15% of the total) referred to electoral processes, including three to tactical voting, and two each to voter registration and disinformation.
Party policies received the most coverage out of all topics most in weeks two and four, while discussions about polling dominated the headlines in week three. In general, non-policy topics counted for over two-thirds of news coverage in all weeks, indicating that the media does seem to focus on the horse-race and other aspects of campaigning, as opposed to substantive policy issues.
Table 1: Number of articles (raw number) and proportion coverage (percentage)
||Week 1: 6-12 November
||Week 2: 13-19 November
||Week 3: 20-26 November
||Week 4: 27 November-3 December
||Week 5: 4-10 December
My results display similar trends to the findings of the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, which has been conducting rigorous audits of news coverage for every general election since 1992. The Centre finds that coverage of electoral processes dominated the news in the first week of the campaign – with around four in 10 articles talking about this topic – before dropping to between a quarter and a third of coverage from week two onwards.
Table 2: Percentage coverage of the ‘electoral process’ theme within the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture’s analysis of media during the election
||Week 1: 7–13 November
||Week 2: 14–20 November
||Week 3: 21–27 November
||Week 4: 28 November–4 December
The Centre also finds that, throughout the campaign, smaller parties and female politicians received considerably less coverage – with Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon being marginalised from the election debate compared to similar male politicians.
If we had a fairer, more proportional voting system, the news media and parties themselves would not have to pay so much attention to the horse race and strategic logistics of the election, but could rather extend their coverage to all parties and focus on the issues that really matter to voters – party policies.
Chelsea was a research placement student from the University of Nottingham.
* News articles were found using the search term ‘general election’ on Google News. While this is an imperfect resource, given Google’s algorithms and limits around date settings, it still provides a snapshot of what the main media outlets were talking about during the last five weeks of the campaign. All articles belonging to the main national news outlets (BBC News, Telegraph, Guardian, Sky News and so on) were included in the analysis. Given time and search limitations, it wasn’t possible to keep the sample size consistent across weeks.