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

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Politics


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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