Media in Context and the 2019 General Election: How Traditional and Social Media Shape Elections and Governing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter


Boris Johnson called an election that represents the fifth time British voters will cast a preference in a national poll in less than five years. The Exeter based Media in Context team has been capturing media content during these campaigns. This grant will allow us, and others who use the data we deposit with the UK Data Service, a further opportunity to assess and understand the influence of social and traditional media in British politics.
This opportunity comes at a critical point in British politics, with a country divided by the new Brexit cleavage; more extreme parties whose moderates have been "hollowed out" by deselections and retirements; an increasingly hostile environment accompanied by incivility and a "coarsening" of political debate; and growing salience of local concerns driven by austerity politics.The potential of misinformation and unchecked claims across traditional and social media platforms is an overlying factor that intensifies concern.
The research will: 1) provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of traditional and social media in national and supra-national elections over the past five years in British politics; 2) build on our key findings with a closer focus on local media and its role in national elections, in particular its links to perceptions of local MPs and candidates and to the salient issues in elections; 3) examine the impact of actual and perceived incivility on perceptions of contemporary British politics and on political behaviour; 4) identify gaps in our longitudinal media data, collect additional data where gaps exist, and harmonise our database of traditional and social media election news coverage.

Planned Impact

By examining flows of campaign information over time, as well as by linking them to individuals, we are able to understand both where social and traditional media fit in the contemporary information environment, the implications for governance, and media's effects on individual attitudes and behaviours.

These research foci allow us to address ESRC strategic priorities such as influencing behaviour and informing interventions. In addition, based on the implications of the research outputs our project will inform debates about how to enhance the quality of political life in Britain by illustrating where media appear to have a positive influence and where its influence is less positive or detrimental. In light of ongoing discussions regarding media (e.g., Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's inquiry on voter engagement in the UK), the data will allow us to identify and deliver policy recommendations by providing a more in-depth understanding of the nature of media coverage of politics and its effects on governance and the British public.
1. Potential Policy and Societal Impact
- The user community outside academe is large and diverse. It consists of all those institutions and individuals who have a professional interest in media, media regulation, elections and electoral processes. One segment of this extra-academic user group is centered around political parties: elected office holders, party officials, campaigners, and those working in research institutes and thinktanks connected to political parties. A slightly different group consists of those representing social groups and organised interests and who equally have a stake in the outcome of elections, and sometimes in providing their members with relevant information and advice (labour unions, employers organisations, churches, sundry cause groups, formal lobbyists, etc.). Another component consists of media organisations and journalists who provide
audiences (the mass audience as well as more specialised and targeted audiences) with information on elections. Finally there is a plethora of firms (mainly, but not exclusively, SME's) that cater to the rest of the extra-academic user community (market research companies, media and campaign specialists, consultancy firms, etc.).
- The research findings will also contribute towards evidence-based policy making in the area of media and media regulation. The findings should give clear indications of the impact of social media competition on the production of electorally relevant information, and of variation by source and mode (e.g., TV vs. newspapers). Public broadcasters in particular are interested in fulfilling the remit of informing citizens and can base policy recommendations on the indications from our research about the influences on, and of, their election coverage. The workshop at the 2020 EPOP conference will advance these areas of impact.
2. Research Area Impact
Another benefit of the research is to the UK Research Area: The visibility of the UK as a venue for research on matters pertaining to electoral behaviour, electoral representation, the role of the media, and democracy will be promoted. The innovation of automated media coding also places the UK at the forefront of research using content analysis, while the methods we use to discern media effects using the survey data will have applicability to a rich set of causal questions in the social sciences in general.


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Description This award promised two outcomes: 1. Content analysis of media coverage of the 2019 general election. 2. A single dataset that would merge media coverage of the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general elections into common variables, allowing researchers to look at coverage over time.
The data were deposited with UK Data Service at the end of March 2022. The 2015-19 dataset is the basis for a forthcoming edited book on the media in British elections with University of Edinburgh Press. We have several findings. A paper at the University of Exeter workshop in June 2021 compared patterns in media coverage of the issue of ageing, e.g., pensions, social care, in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 elections and their influence, if any, on public perceptions of the most important issue in the election. That analysis showed that ageing tended to receive less coverage than issues such as Europe and the NHS but that 2017 was the exception due to Theresa May's proposal for a so-called dementia tax. Analysis shows a clear agenda-setting effect in these three elections, in that the more coverage of ageing there is in the media, the more likely individuals are to consider it an important problem. This finding was robust to several different statistical tests. It suggests that more attention to this issue would elevate its importance in the eyes of voters.
This is one of the chapters in the edited book, along with several other currently in preparation from the 2021 early career workshop.
Exploitation Route The publication and availability of the harmonized dataset will be the major outcome of this award. Its availability on the UKDS, particularly as we publish an edited book using the data, should considerably advance the study of media and media effects in the UK. This will the first book length consideration of media effects in British elections for 20 years.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Early career workshop on Media and UK Elections
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Title Linking media to British Election Study (BES) most important problem question 
Description The tool (1) predicts the issue category that respondents identify as the most important issue facing the country, from open ended responses in the BES, (2) finds the newspapers that respondents claimed to have read in the three days prior to interview in the BES, and (3) provides estimates of the issue coverage to which respondents would have been exposed based on our media coverage data. This allows researchers to clearly examine agenda-setting effects of media. It also holds out the prospect of looking at changes in media coverage and how or whether these are associated with changes in issue importance once the data are harmonized with the data going back to the election of 2015. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We have been using the data. Other researchers are requesting the generation of additional data using this method for the workshop in June 2021. 
Title Media in Context 2015-2017-2019 Harmonized Dataset 
Description These data combine the different Media in Context data from the last three general elections into a single file with a common set of variables for issues and party leaders. These data were deposited with UKDS at the end of March 2022. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact A pre-release version of the data was used as part of the June 14, 2021 Early Career workshop. The workshop formed the basis for an edited book that is currently under preparation for University of Edinburgh Press and the data will be described and advertised as part of that book. 
Title Media in Context 2019 Data Pre-release 
Description This is a pre-release of media data from the 2019 general election, beginning the day the election was announced and ending with the Queen's Speech. Each row of data represents the number of stories per day per newspaper on the topics of Europe, economy, environment, health, immigration, inequalities for 46 national and regional newspapers. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact These pre-release data form the basis for the approach to the final data set, which will combine the 2019 election data with 2015, 2017 and media data from the EU referendum in 2016. 
Description University of Exeter Workshop on Media and UK Elections 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This is a workshop that took place on June 14 2021 (virtually). Participants gave presentations using a first version of the harmonized Media in Context data from this project. The objective was partly to generate interest in and advertise the data to a wider audience. Participants were PhD students and early career researchers from the UK, Europe and North America.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021