As the world reels from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union on Thursday, the attention to headlines and roundups of “how newspapers covered the vote” demonstrate that, whatever their financial woes, newspapers remain a primary source of news for millions of people.
However, less widely acknowledged is the fact that newspapers also played a significant role in forecasting — and, perhaps, producing — the “Leave” vote in the first place.
Researchers at Britain’s Loughborough University conducted a study of 1,127 articles about the referendum and related issues from early May to mid-June. It found that, when the circulation of the newspapers publishing the articles is taken into account, UK newspapers favored Brexit by a whopping margin of 82% to 18%.
The huge skew was mostly the result of popular tabloids with large readerships – most notably The Sun, with a circulation of 1.7 million, Daily Mail, with a circulation of 1.5 million, and The Daily Telegraph, with a circ of half a million – declaring support for Leave.
Meanwhile a number of mostly smaller papers, including the Daily Mirror, The Observer, The Guardian and the Financial Times, all backed Remain.
In an odd situation reflecting the unusual distinction between British weekend and weekday editions, the weekday Times backed remain, while its weekend edition, The Times On Sunday, backed leave. Likewise, the weekend Mail On Sunday also backed remain, putting it at odds with the weekday Daily Mail’s backing Leave.
Of course, one big question is whether, and to what degree, newspapers shaped public opinion in Britain, versus merely reflecting it as they sought to align themselves more closely with their specific audiences.
Looking ahead, newspapers which backed Remain face the difficult task of reporting on the fallout from the vote, while squaring their own editorial stances with the expressed will of the British electorate. A decision which they have publicly condemned as foolish and self-destructive.